Critical Essay Kelley's Writing Style


The novel is told almost wholly from the viewpoint of the white people in the town. The black characters are never used as narrators, and the few instances in which they do speak are re-told by either a white narrative voice or by an omniscient narrator. This technique is surprising in view of the fact that the major action of the novel is initiated and carried out by the black characters. The use of this technique highlights, again and again, the naiveté and blindness of the whites in regard to the blacks, with whom they have lived all their lives. It also shows the tremendous effect of blacks upon the lives of whites.

Tucker's actions and the migration of the black people leave nearly all of the whites stunned with shock and disbelief that a black man could take such independent action. Harry Leland, David Willson, and Dewey Willson are the only whites who even begin to understand the depth of the frustrations suffered by black men under the southern social system.

Readers who insist upon categorizing novels within a racial context as black or white, for example, may be somewhat confused by the fact that the major characters of this novel seem to be white. However, the novel is structured and developed within the context of the black experience. Tucker's "primitive" act of destruction echoes the African tribal rites of purification and those involving a man's "coming of age." Tucker destroys all that upon which he depended emotionally, economically, and psychologically. The fire which destroyed his house and possessions also purified his mind in the sense that he has freed himself. He has become a free man through self-knowledge and action.

Kelley assembles the novel like a jigsaw puzzle. The psychological motivation behind Tucker's actions and the migration is given to us skillfully, in bits and pieces. Each character who narrates a chapter tells a brief section of the central action, which covers only two days. However, each separate chapter is devoted to flashbacks, some encompassing many years. In addition, some sections are personal memories of the characters, while other sections are devoted to legend.

It is interesting to note that the chapter which tells of the African and his refusal to become a slave and the chapter concerning the day Tucker destroyed all physical and emotional ties with the white southern society which had nearly destroyed him take on the sense of being legends. Both men, through their heroic and somewhat mysterious nature, become heroes within the folklore of the region. Kelley's use of this form may be seen as an indirect refutation of the once-held belief that American blacks had no historical or mythical store on which to build a literature and culture.

The novel, then, falls somewhat within the genre of the historical novel, although its concern is more with the social heritage than with facts, dates, and battles. Note, however, that a battle (usually the crux of historical novels) is fought; here, the battle occurs in the mind of Dewey Willson between the personifications of the social forces then and now at war in the South.