Saturday, August 20, 2011
The Walking Man by Constance O. Irvin
Constance Irvin's second novel delivers a strong story of a different time and place. Most of the tale is told in flashback as Maggie Green returns to her hometown fifty years later to confront an episode from her childhood and fulfill a promise she made then.
Maggie is living a rather idyllic life in a small town in Alabama in the 1950's. Days are happily spent roaming the town with her friends, stopping in the local store to buy penny candy, and discovering adventure in the surrounding countryside. One of those adventures however leads to the murder of Angel, the little girl that Maggie loves without understanding what her feelings mean. When Maggie lies about what the children were doing that day, she unleashes a period of turmoil and danger in the town.
The frustration of the adults is vented against the "odd" characters, the Walking Man and Maggie's friend Mozell, the old Negro woman who lives on the outskirts of the town. Prejudice and racism are unleashed. As Maggie tries to find a way to reveal what she knows without getting her friends in trouble, the life of the town is changed and takes on a sinister nature. When the truth finally comes out, Maggie finds her own life threatened by a source she never suspected. Though she obviously survives to tell her story, her life and the town are changed forever.
The feel of this book is reminiscent of the works of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers. The reader is transported to a time in Southern history when small town life was lazy and comfortable. There was an uneasy accommodation between the races made possible by everyone "knowing their places." Civil rights had not become an issue yet; all women, white and black, were known as Miss Maggie or Miss Mozell, regardless of age; and men kept their war stories to themselves and focused on supporting their families. Soda came in bottles that required an opener and laundry had to be hung on the line outside to dry. (There is a delightful passage that will sound very familiar to women of a certain age where Maggie explains the system her mother made her learn.) Women baked every day, men chewed tobacco, and children felt safe to run free for hours without their parents worrying about what could be happening to them. Unique characters existed in abundance and usually were tolerated by people who knew the secret stories of what made them "strange."
The setting of the story strikes a chord deep inside and draws the reader into the tale even more than the characters do. Tomboy Maggie is so vividly painted that it's easy to picture her strolling down the street with her pigtails, blue jeans and trusty Daisy BB gun, using fence posts and trees for target practice. Irvin tells a simple story, but one that is difficult to put down before it's finished.
The Walking Man is not a typical lesbian novel, although it is written by a lesbian and a lesbian character does appear in the book. What it is, is a good book that should not be missed.