In her latest novel, Suzanne Hudson has written a work of consequence, a masterful interplay of the social construct as lived in Sumner, Georgia, from pre-World War II to the shocking murder of Emmit Till in 1955, an event that draws the attention of a country grappling with the concept of desegregation of the South.
The major players are the Lacey family, a financially respectable gentility who are collectively an example for the residents of Sumner. The family patriarch, Campbell Lacey, is catered to by the town, his rigid racial attitudes reflecting those of white towards black, that snide superiority and easy dismissal of those with dark skin. As the Sheriff, Camp Lacey sets the tone of Sumner, memorable for his eccentricities and a cruel streak that early infects his granddaughter with terror.
Ironically, Campbell's son, Jack Lacey, a deputy, is untainted by the distortions of prejudice. But Jack has his own troubles, an emotionally unstable wife, Pearl, and their beautiful, if precocious daughter, Elizabeth, whose childish exploits he has captured on canisters of film. The headstrong Elizabeth enjoys free reign in her childhood, frequently absent from school but with a high degree of intelligence. By adolescence, Elizabeth displays some of the instabilities seen in her mother, either wildly ecstatic or profoundly depressed. It is the tragedies of life Elizabeth cannot bear: Germany's death camps, the horrors of Hiroshima, fresh-faced soldiers cut down by war, her own grandfather's violent death.
In a family of secrets, propriety is the household god, and Elizabeth grows up in these shadowed rooms unable to translate her family's mixed messages. When the uninhibited beauty acts out a worldly curiosity, her sexual awakening is a cause for concern; Elizabeth lacks the necessary caution as she revels in teasing and flirting, dancing endlessly with young soldiers at USO clubs. The soldiers intuit Elizabeth's emotional fragility, enjoying her vivacious nature but protective of her innocence. She isn't so fortunate with the men of Sumner.
Kansas Lacey is the result of Elizabeth's impetuous liaison with a traveling salesman, merely a child when her mother succumbs to suicide. It falls to Kansas, as lonely as ever her mother was, to sort through the remnants of family secrets, gathering pieces of the past, reconstructing Elizabeth's life. Kansas is a child of the new South, a girl who will demand answers from her family and the rigid society that defines them.
Hudson's characters are as diverse as the population of Sumner: the Lacey clan, with Campbell and his acerbic wife, Lucille; Jack Lacey, the always-inebriated Pearl and rambunctious Elizabeth; Kansas, so like her mother, who finds salvation in the arms of family servants; Aunt Francis, a secret lesbian and a loving anchor for both Elizabeth and Kansas. Other than family, there is Hotshot, a mentally challenged black boy Elizabeth takes under her wing, offering him a safe place in a violent world; Royce Fitzhugh, a deputy who has long coveted Elizabeth from afar, caught in the web of his own imaginings and macho swagger; Roxy, Kansas' only friend, confused by the onset of sexuality and the advances of men; Pinky, the black woman who provides solace to the troubled Elizabeth; and Eula Lura (little Bit), the family cook devastated by the lynching and mutilation of her husband, Ned, now withdrawn from the world until she can no longer withstand Kansas' terrible loneliness.
All is set against a backdrop of changing history, mired in violence and resistance:
"Kansas would look back on southern Georgia's gathering swell of violence, when Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney ended up dead in the morally desolate Mississippi of Emmit Till's final summer." Through Elizabeth's desperate struggle to accommodate a failing mind and her daughter's unrequited quest for connection, the strong brown arms of Pinky and Eula Lura protect the girls, whispering of love while enduring their own broken hearts and lost dreams. Pinky and Eula Lura are the backbone of this novel, beacons of hope leading Elizabeth and Kansas to a place of acceptance and affection.
Hudson has crafted a powerful, important Southern novel, addressing the coexistence of good and evil, the heart of darkness confronted with decency, honor and an opportunity for redemption.