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Publication: The Boston Globe
Author: Anna Mundow
Date: October 16, 2005

The American appetite for reinvention

Hearing so much talk recently about a bigger and better New Orleans made me contemplate the twin American traditions of land grabbing and boosterism, particularly when I read ''The King of Kings County," Whitney Terrell's wonderfully apposite novel about the reshaping of a city, specifically Kansas City in the 1950s.

''It's going to be the biggest land grab since Tom Durant stole half of Iowa for the Union Pacific." Con man Alton Acheson is referring to the federal interstate highway plan, which he believes will make him rich if he acquires enough farmland in Kings County, along the proposed highway route, and persuades a local developer to finance the steal.

White city dwellers will race to his new suburb, Alton predicts -- especially when they see black families moving into their old part of town. ''The car is nice, the highway is nice," his business partner observes, ''but none of them is quite as good as fear . . . why else would you . . . be financing [black] mortgages . . . if not to scare whites out of those neighborhoods?" The associate, by the way, is a mob boss and therefore in the fear business.

The story of visionary Alton's collision with reality is told by his watchful son, Jack. It begins in 1954, when the 8-year-old is already his father's straight man, ''letting the glow of his wildness reflect indirectly off me," and it ends over 40 years later when Jack's own romantic obsession (with the developer's daughter) finally dissipates.

''It was still possible in those days for a young white man -- for a white person of any age -- to ruin a black person's day due to something as tiny as a fit of pique," Jack recalls of Kansas City in the 1950s, a place that Terrell evokes with wit, lyricism, and an admirably jaundiced eye. Youthful alliances and tragedies; city politics; racial showdowns; the prairie eviscerated by the highway; honor trumped by greed; Terrell makes each an integral part of his simple, affecting story.

''You couldn't tell if it was real or fake," Jack says, describing Kansas City illuminated for the Fourth of July, ''but you knew that it made money." In Karen Fisher's accomplished first novel, ''A Sudden Country," that founding principle is already conquering the American West. ''From one pocket they pulled strings of beads, steel awls, flints and strikers," Fisher writes of 19th-century Jesuit missionaries pacifying the Ogallala. ''From the other, small iron crosses on their thongs. And that was how old men and warriors were won. Then came speeches back and forth, in which unlikely promises were made."

''A Sudden Country," based on Fisher's own family history, follows the wagon train on which Lucy Mitchell, a young wife and mother, travels from Missouri to Oregon in 1847. It is her dour husband's decision to ''suffer for themselves those hardships that had made his parents such outstanding characters. The irony seemed to escape him." Fisher lends each hardship, beauty, and horror a daguerreotype clarity. The Platte River ''stretched away across a wide flat vastness, an inland sea, bright as sheet ember with the sun along it"; the bodies of murdered traders lie ''scalped, diminished, like hares shaken and left by heedless dogs." Lucy's marriage is summed up in two sentences: ''She cried sometimes. He let her."

James MacLaren, his children killed by fever, searches for the scoundrel who has lured away his Nez Perce wife and finds him on Lucy's wagon train. But the real ambush here is laid by love, not by revenge. Before Lucy knows where she is (which she doesn't most of the time), she and the grieving loner are passionately entangled. In those unbridled moments, Fisher unfortunately jettisons her inhibitions as well, and some overwrought writing results (''She stood and raised her lips, and met his frightening teeth"). This is a pity because ''A Sudden Country," while not comparable to Guy Vanderhaeghe's ''The Last Crossing" in scope or in skill, summons up the American West with similar vividness.

Lucy has been taught that ''Negroes, Jews, the Irish. . . . Of all, the Indian was furthest from God's pattern, closest to the devil." The same convenient prejudices shaped the career and life of Bert Williams, one of the first black entertainers to attain widespread fame in the US and Europe. Williams, who was born in 1874 and died at the age of 47, is the subject of Caryl Phillips's moody new novel, ''Dancing in the Dark," which artfully compresses Williams's life without reducing it in any way.

W. C. Fields called him ''the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew," an affliction made flesh in this novel every time Williams washes off the blackface makeup he is first forced, and later chooses, to wear. If his Bahamian immigrant parents quickly learn ''how to be . . . foreigners and the most despised of homegrown sons," their son learns to become ''somebody else's fantasy" as he dances the cakewalk or plays the comical drunk. ''Maybe the English will treat us with a little more respect," Williams's longtime partner, George Walker, speculates, as they begin a European tour. ''George," Williams laughs, ''you think they could treat us with less?"