American Ghost: A Novel by Janis Owens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Goodreads: An engrossing novel
inspired by a true event about unresolved family history and racial
tensions that threaten a Florida community.
With American Ghost,
Janis Owens offers an evocative southern novel continuing in the
tradition originally established by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and brought
into the new millennium by writers like Karen Russell and Kathryn
Stockett. Inspired by Owens’s extensive research on a real lynching that
occurred in the 1930s, American Ghost is a richly woven exploration of
how the events of our past can haunt our present.
Jolie Hoyt is
the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher living in small-town Florida.
Disregarding her family’s closet full of secrets and distrust of
outsiders, she throws caution to the wind when she falls in love with
Sam Lense, a Jewish anthropology student from Miami in town to study the
region. But their affair ends abruptly when Sam is discovered to have
pried too deeply into the town’s dark racial past and he becomes the
latest victim of violence. Years later, Sam and Jolie are brought
together again, and as they resolve the mistakes of their early love,
they finally shed light on the ugly history of Jolie’s hometown.
page-turning blend of romance and historical gothic, American Ghost is a
triumph—the novel that this outstanding Southern author was born to
My thoughts: I hate to compare this book to blockbuster success, but it evoked the same emotions I felt when I read The Help. It's a book about Southern hypocrisy, but that's not what makes me compare the two. When I bought The Help, I was simply looking for something good to read and saw it at Costco. I hadn't heard anything about it and there were few reviews. I bought it hardback version. It's the kind of book that sneaks up on you and you realize you should have gone to bed hours ago.
Like the previously mentioned book, the story is intriguing but not its strongest point. The strongest point is the character development as each one brings a unique chemistry to the mix. The lines they each deliver at the right moment enveloped me right into the book. The book needed the Jewish Sam Lense, the mixed blood of Jolie and Carl Hoyt with all their kin, and Scandinavian style Lena with her bikini tops and devotion to Jolie and Carl. The story needed the aging sisters and their slow shuffles to get the eggs or change for a twenty. Uncle Ott was somewhat of a mystic in his smaller statue while older brother Ray was a mythic giant with his cast eye and humility in preaching.
The central theme is the mystery regarding the lynching of a black man from the turpentine camp in 1938. Horrific crimes were committed that night and when the details are revealed, it did turn my stomach. The book is loosely built on a historical event in the backwoods of Florida, the last documented collective lynching quite late in American history. This is where the hypocrisy sneaks in as the Hoyts claim to be white folk but a pedigree search quickly reveals their Irish blood making a lot of babies with native Indians then intermarrying. But ask them about the Injuns that live in the woods and they will give a true look of puzzlement.
The backwoods town of Hendrix, where the crime first began, is a well written story of collective secrecy, guilt and shame. It is a society that holds their ancestor's sins close to the chest and sabotage themselves from true betterment which is the case of Jolie, although there were extenuating circumstances that occur that facilitate her self sabotage.
There are a bunch of stories going on in the book and spanning seventy years. The lynching is a secret because those who perpetrated the violence (beyond the first killing, which was of a shopkeeper in the camp), are respected members of society, such as it is. Sixy years later, their children are still trying to keep their game face on. But one black worker lost two of his fingers in the scuffle and his sons, now elderly, enter the ring in an entreaty to retrieve their daddy's "fangers." The middle two. But that only brings up the guilt of the town which is a bad thing. And another newer act of violence that Jolie never solved. Better to carry the secrets and never mention them than to bring them all to light and discover the crimes are not enough to carry through the generations, you see.
The story is intriguing. The characters are unbelievably real and well fleshed out. The writing style is succinct yet beautiful. I ended up writing down words that struck me. I know them in context but on their own, they are just fun to say like sonorously, anathema, vaudevillian, purloined, cacophony, sanguine, temerity, anachronistic.
Excellent book that I expect to see a lot more of in the next couple of years.
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*I received a free copy of this book from publishing company in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are my own.