Fire in a Canebrake by Laura Wexler
Part of the reason I’m taking this class on Southern history is because, all things considered, I’m probably going to leave the South at some point in my pursuit of publishing glory. This will mean negotiating different standards of manners (I never realized how Southern I was until I spent five minutes in Boston). It also means that, being Southern (well, because of my accent, revealing I’m Southern) is going to get me some looks from Yankees, and I want to be prepared to talk frankly about the South’s painful, problematic past when I’m asked. Thus this class, and thus books like this.
Fire in a Canebrake is subtitled “The Last Mass Lynching in America”. On July 25, 1946, in Walton County, Georgia, four black sharecroppers—two men and two women—are brutally murdered by a group of white lynchers. The white man from whose car they were dragged testifies that he’d seen nobody he knew. The killings draws national attention, resulting in President Truman creating the President’s Commission on Civil Rights. FBI investigators arrive, eager to bring the killers to justice, but they aren’t prepared for the community closing ranks against them. In the sixty years between the crime and author Laura Wexler’s own investigation into the lynching, a few leads have come up, but lead nowhere. In examining this crime and race relations in America, Wexler also examines the concept of the truth.
One of the things I enjoy most about history is imagining what happened on the very soil I’m walking on now. (Presumably this comes from watching my parents retrace their own steps constantly on family travels.) Oscar Wilde walked here, I thought, weaving my way through Dublin in the first days of 2012, and now, but for time, I am walking beside him. In this game, however, you must take the good with the bad. Fire in a Canebrake happened on a bridge in Monroe, Georgia. That’s less than an hour away from where I’m sitting right now. I know someone—a very sweet, kind, and capable someone—who hails from Monroe, Georgia. There are painful histories all over the world and all over the United States, but this is one of mine, even though I can hem and haw and fall back on my recent French heritage all I want. This lynching, in particular, marks a turning point in the history of race relations. Wexler’s first few chapters describe the town, major players, and an account of the lynching, before revealing that it received national media attention. The community isn’t shocked at the brutal killings; the community is shocked that the rest of the nation cares.
Unlike most history books aimed at the mass market that I’ve read, Laura Wexler utterly vanishes from the narrative. There’s no introduction, no explanation of how she got interested in the topic. There is an author’s note and acknowledgments at the end, but she doesn’t even mention herself when she’s taking quotes from interviews she personally conducted. It both puts the focus on the event at hand and allows her to arrange the narrative like a detective novel. Or, rather, the monologue at the end of a detective novel. The first testimony we get about the lynching is Loy Harrison’s, one of the most powerful white men in the county, and it’s not introduced as questionable. I, stupidly, took it as fact. But Wexler slowly revolves around the issue—I think the best metaphor is one of those moneyspinners—slowly pulling things back bit by bit, layer by layer, until you realize that the case at first glance has little to do with the case it actually is.
The moneyspinner metaphor remains apt, because the case is unsolvable. There is no happy (well, happier) ending to these killings. A white man, Clinton Adams, did come forward in the nineties, having supposedly witnessed the lynching as a small boy. He offered closure that people leapt on, but, as Wexler reveals, his story is full of holes. (There’s something darkly determined about how Wexler compares accounts to each other, pointing out all the ways that they just don’t add up.) Even the men that Clinton Adams fingers as the culprits are all dead, leaving justice unsatisfied. And it’s here that I long for Wexler’s own voice. In her author’s note, Wexler states: “The only way for blacks and whites to live together peacefully in America in the twenty-first century is if we begin struggling to understand and acknowledge the extent to which racism has destroyed—and continues to destroy—our ability to tell a common truth” (267). At the heart of this book and this case is not an answer, but an empty, gaping hole, one that Wexler proposes might be “the truest representation of race in America” (267). I just wish this had been a major theme in the last chapters, instead of brought up at the end of her author’s note.
Bottom line: Fire in a Canebrake, Laura Wexler’s darkly determined effort to get to the bottom of the 1946 Walton County mass lynching, is structured like a detective novel—Wexler reveals layer after layer until we suddenly realize that there is a gaping hole where the truth should be. I wish we’d gotten more of Wexler as a narrator, if only for her thoughts on race relations in America to influence the last few chapters. Worth a read.
I bought this used book off of Amazon.