A former lawyer and judge in Charlotte and law professor at the UNC School of Law, Bennett sets his debut novel in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. It is the 1960s, and the established segregated social order is about to be ripped apart.
The two main characters are teenage boys who had played together when they were younger. As they grew older, they went to segregated schools and lost contact, even as they walked the same streets in their hometown. In the opening scene, the white boy, oddly named Richeboux, drives into the black section of town with a group of his schoolmates and throws an egg into the head of a pastor and community leader. The pastor is the mentor and substitute father of the main black character, Acee Waites.
The pastor’s panic and anger at this humiliating attack leads to a fatal heart attack that sets off 36 hours of turmoil in the community, in the lives of the main characters, and in their families as the plot drives the two boys cascading towards a tragic reconnection.
Years from now, careful historians and literary critics will note how often southern writers of today look back on the late 1950s and 1960s for stories grounded in the complicated relationships between white and black young people.
Several books by North Carolina authors come to mind.
Clyde Edgerton’s recent “Night Train,” set in small-town North Carolina during these times, also featured two teenage boys, one black and one white. Their struggle for friendship confronted the norms of a community determined to hold on to its traditional segregated customs.
The late Doug Marlette’s second novel, “Magic Time,” looked at Mississippi during the 1960s when a young white man and the son of his family’s maid responded to the developing civil rights struggle. Fast forwarding to the 1990s, the story finds the white character still struggling while his black friend is in the U.S. Congress.
UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Minrose Gwin’s “The Queen of Palmyra,” takes us back to 1963. In a small southern town, an 11-year-old white girl spends most of her days in the company of and in the care of her grandmother’s African American maid. The major characters face the challenges of the segregated and oppressive social system at every turn.
Hillsborough’s Anna Jean Mayhew’s “The Dry Grass of August” takes us back to racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and a poignant story of a young girl whose relationships with her family’s maid and a young black boy add to her family’s stress and shine a bright light on the cruelty of the social norms.
The late Joe Martin’s first and only novel, “Fire in the Rock,” dealt with the extra complications of an interracial triangle of teenagers in late 1950s South Carolina, a white boy, a black boy, and a white girl.
“Leaving Tuscaloosa” fits in this tradition of coming-of-age novels by white authors who grew up in the late 50s and 60s.
It also tells a gripping story that novelist Lee Smith says is “deeply moving, disturbing, haunting, and important.”
So, even if it were not a part of the record of how our writers deal with our region’s history of race relations, “Leaving Tuscaloosa” would be an important book, well worth reading.