Monday, May 14, 2012

Death in the Delta by Molly Walling

Contrary to the impression the title gives, this isn't actually a mystery story. Rather, it's partly a family biography, partly an autobiography (or at least, a personal account) and partly a musing on racial tensions in the South.

Death in the Delta follows the authoress as she tries to uncover the truth behind a family secret - that of her dad killing a black man when she was a child and walking away scot-free. The structure of the book follows her search, but at times delves into the past (her memories) and her musings on the subject. As she talks to various people, relatives or simply people from the community, she finds different versions of the same story. So which one is true?

Well, we'll never know. Like someone rightly said, most of the primary people involved are dead. And it's very hard to get a community used to holding on to secrets to let go. So what we're left with in the end are just suppositions/theories.

But, I think it'd be worth reading the book is only to read about the history. Ms Walling's family was quite prominent in that area, so her family history intersects with the local history. When we read of her grandmother's way of running the household, we read about the "white man's burden" attitude that was prevalent in the time. In fact, the book kind of sums up it's "real" motive, which isn't so much of uncovering the mystery but:

"What mattered most to me, then and now, was that intersecting lives and countless social, economic, historical, psychological elements zinged into place in an instant. This drama could have played on a similar stage anywhere that class and privilege met with degradation and resistance."

So really, this book is more interested in the possible motives behind the events than what actually happened. I think this arises because it's impossible to set a definitive version of what happened down on paper. And even if it was possible, why would we care? But if we look at the reason, which are so much broader, this topic, this isolated incident suddenly becomes much more relevant.

I'll just indulge in one more quote, about non-fiction in general before I stop for good.

"Nonfiction writers, like me, know that their primary role is to tell the truth, to present the facts, to steer wide and clear of conjecture and supposition, to write with clarity and transparency. ... For me to put forth another version of the story requires me to indulge in the kind of fallacious suppositioning that undermines our memories of true events. But since this 'quilting' together of disparate parts is painful, there may be some merit in doing it."

I just wish all non-fiction writers were this honest (especially the historical non-fiction writers).

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

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