When Emmett Till, a young black man was murdered in the Mississippi Delta, Nordan was fifteen years old. Certainly fifteen is one of those pivotal years in any mans life when you are caught between seeing the man you hope to be, but are still snagged by the childish enthusiasms of a boy. As insignificant as wolf whistling at a pretty, white woman may be, this awakens every primal fear in the hearts of men who cant understand that a boy that is black or a boy that is white are simply just boys learning how to be men. A white boy who wolf whistles at a pretty married woman might get a cuff to the back of the head, but a black boy...well...he has to die. Solon is poor white trash, but he sees himself as higher on the evolutionary ladder than a black boy like Bobo. When Solon overhears the catcall that Bobo makes towards Sally Anne, wife of the local aristocratic (such as it is) Lord Montbeclair, he decides he is affronted and that Lord Montbeclair should know about this. He also sees that Bobo has a picture of a white woman in his wallet, and he makes an epic jump in logic to believe that the picture is of Sally Anne. The photo is of Hedy Lamarr, but then Solon has already shown that he sees the world slightly blurred, in soft focus, where all black men look alike and all attractive white women have the same face. We can only hope that men like Solon and Montbeclair are slowly becoming extinct with each passing generation.
The book weaves a story about the people living in Arrow Catcher, mostly poor whites and even poorer blacks. (The murder itself was treated as the tragic event that it was.) Black men singing the blues set a sad musical tone in the first half of the book. Lewis Nordan tells this story with a combination of history, ethics, magical realism, humor, and just good storytelling.
I may come back to this review later to add more, since I just finished reading the last page and wanted to get some thoughts down while it's still fresh in my mind.
Its all our hearts. Its Mississippi.
If you're Lewis Nordan you write books like "Wolf Whistle." The book is based on the murder of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta in 1955, and event that helped increase the momentum for civil rights activism in that decade. The sheriffs of Tallahatchie County (where Till was murdered, and where his body was found) and Leflore County (where he was taken from his Uncle's house) both said the body found was Till. As the days passed that all changed, and white Mississippians began to complain of the bad publicity (the case gained national attention), and that the actions of a few hot-heads shouldn't rain judgment down on the state and its "traditions." The Tallahatchie sheriff soon reversed himself and said he didn't know if the body found was Till, and the boy was probably alive, hidden in comfort somewhere in his home town of Chicago. The husband and half-brother were tried for the murder in Tallahatchie County, but not for the kidnapping of the boy from his uncle's house, which happened in Leflore. After the trial the two men were held before the grand jury in Leflore County for the kidnapping charge, which they had admitted to under oath at their trial.
If I were to choose three words to describe Nordan's work, it would be haunting, hilarious, and tragic. Irony, satire and caricature are applied to all of his characters, except to Bobo, the murdered boy, who remains the pure and moral center of the novel. It is around Bobo's murder that the complex racial and cultural relations of this novel pivot.
He is able to see his characters as all equally human - which brings me to the most wonderful thing about this book: the writing style itself - that is, the constant reminders that we are all human together, all the same, all one - is the only way to stop the violence and racism he describes in the book. When one is honestly present to the fact that we are all equally human, can one commit such acts of violence? The blurb about this book mentions hilarity - personally, I don't think so.
Did you know that other people actually live here, with me? And that insanity, for some, bares a resemblance of a forgotten historical story. For Emmitt Till to still remain so forgotten and under exploited baffles me, but my perplexion just like my complexion should not matter...his death impacted America, regardless of race, gender or humanity...this man...No, this child...NO!
Loosely based on the lynching of 14 year old Emmet Till in 1955 (for whistling at a white woman), Nordan's novel is as far away from a crime novel as you can get. The murder of fourteen year old Bobo is just barely made tragic.
It also established a place for Nordans fiction, the fictional Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, a small town in the Mississippi Delta based loosely on Nordans hometown of Itta Bena. With the coming-of-age novel Lightning Song (1997), Nordan moved from Itta Bena to the hill country of Mississippi. The novel still features Nordan's magic Mississippi realism, complete with singing llamas and poetic lightning strikes.