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Jolie and Sam fall recklessly in love and dream of beginning a life together, far away from Jolie's buried past. But their affair ends abruptly when Sam is discovered to have pried too deeply into Hendrix's dark racial history and he becomes the latest victim in a long tradition of small-town violence.
Twelve years later, when a black businessman from Memphis returns to Hendrix to do right by his father's memory, Jolie and Sam are brought together again. They are forced to revisit the unresolved issues of their young love and finally shed light on the ugly history of Jolie's hometown.
A complex and compulsively readable Southern saga, continuing in the tradition established by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and brought into the new millennium by writers like Karen Russell and Kathryn Stockett, "American Ghost "was inspired by Janis Owens's extensive research on a real lynching that occurred in 1934 in Marianna, Florida.
"American Ghost "is a richly woven exploration of how the events of our past haunt our present.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-08-06
- Reviewer: Staff
In her fourth novel (after The Schooling of Claybird Catts), Owens takes on an ugly subject and largely succeeds with an engrossing story. Based on the last reported lynching in America, Owens relocates the history to a tiny Florida town, where, in 1938, Henry Kite, a black man, was lynched after shooting a Jewish storekeeper. Decades later, the storekeeper’s great-grandson, Sam, a graduate student in anthropology, arrives to investigate the lynching. Things get complicated when he falls for Jolie, a Pentecostal preacher’s daughter whose family are thought of as “inbred hillbillies.” In the town of Hendrix, everyone knows everything, and tongues wag over Jolie’s catching herself a “rich Jew.” Then, while hunting with her brothers, Sam is shot. As he recuperates, Jolie flees, believing he was only using her for the investigation. The two don’t meet again until a decade later when another investigator becomes interested in the lynching. A thwarted romance set against the backdrop of a town’s difficult history, this story showcases Owens’s talent for characterization and his ability to make settings come alive, but his choice to write dialogue in dialect sounds too much like something we’ve heard before. Agent: Marly Rusoff & Associates. (Oct.)
A town haunted by ignorance
Janis Owens’ Southern Gothic American Ghost is equal parts mystery and thriller, populated with slippery characters inhabiting a backwoods swampland hamlet forever haunted by a Depression-era lynching. Indeed, Owens based her fourth novel on the infamous 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida. Still, while the novel is rooted in a real-life incident, it remains a pure work of fiction in the best sense: a rich portrayal of a small town where the lines between black and white become blurred—not only in regard to race, but in the Hendrix code of honor, too.
Readers are taken through this mesmerizing tale by its teenage heroine, Jolie Hoyt, who, like Owens, is the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. When the story begins, Jolie appears destined for a sad, small life punctuated by poverty and hopelessness in her hardscrabble hometown of Hendrix, Florida—until she falls hard for a visiting anthropology student, Sam Lense. Hailing from a Jewish family in Miami that holds its own bitter secrets, Sam claims to be researching the history of Hendrix’s indigenous Indian tribes, but his true agenda is far more personal, and hinges on the town’s racist past. When the couple’s hasty, albeit heartfelt, engagement is shattered by violence, the young lovers are torn asunder.
Still, the heart of the story is the decades-old lynching, which remains incendiary for survivors on both sides. Owens writes powerfully of Jolie’s epiphany as to the magnitude of the horrors that continue to haunt her hometown: “In the darkness she could imagine it precisely: the tree and the dust, the press of the crowd and the shouting. If she closed her eyes, she could almost smell the stink of the slaughterhouse—the blood and skin and rot of decomposition that Kite must have foreseen himself, being raised on a farm.”
Despite its dark subject matter, the novel is infused with light and hope—no small feat, given that the novel gracefully weaves everything from anti-Semitism and hate crimes to first love and family loyalties into the story. American Ghost is sure to resonate with readers long after its stunning final pages.