The shoes we wear and who we were

by DG Martin

“Because I’m wearing Weejuns?”

This question is the response of a young Southern white man to a question from a Northern white civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964.

“How do I know,” she had asked, Carter Ransom, the lead character in Magic Time, Doug Marlette’s new novel, that “you’re not one of those thugs who’s been calling here and hanging up? Or who firebombed the church in Hattiesburg last week?”

The “Weejuns” response worked for Carter Ransom. His shoes did set him apart from those who used violence to oppose the Civil Rights and Black Empowerment movements of the 1960s.

Looking back from the present day, can the Weejun-wearing young Southern men of the 1960s be proud of their roles in those historic times?

Magic Time is a mystery story that is wrapped inside Carter Ransom’s struggle to forgive himself for not doing enough.

In a sense, Carter represents every white person who lived in those times, accepted the status quo of racial segregation and passed by the opportunity to take any active part in the struggle for civil rights.

How does a Weejun-wearer like Carter explain why we sat on the sidelines?

In Marlette’s novel, Carter faces this question in the 1990s when he returns to his family’s home in Mississippi to recover from a mental breakdown brought on by the pressures of working and living in New York City – and the memories of 1964 and 1965.

The novel takes us back and forth from the ’90s to the ’60s when Carter was a law-school dropout writing for the local newspaper.

In the ’90s, Carter’s fictional hometown, Troy, Mississippi, has been transformed from backwater Deep South to “Sunbelt” progressive.

In the book’s first chapter, Carter’s sister tries to explain the changes to her returning brother: “The town’s changed considerably. You’re not going to recognize it…. Our generation’s finally grown up and taken over. The mayor’s black, and a couple of council members. There’s even an artists’ collective in Troy…. There’s also a clique of writers developing.”

The sick and cynical Carter responds: “Ah, Mississippi. Where they write more books than they read.”

For Carter, the physical changes in his hometown seem ironically to look backwards.

“In Mississippi the past had a way of superimposing itself on the present, and Carter experienced that familiar twinning of realities as he made out the old Kress’s logo bleeding through the whitewashed brick on the building rising before them: a personal landmark. It was now abandoned, a sign on its soaped windows announcing its next tenant, an organic foods market.”

In the Troy of the 1990s, the local US Congressman, Elijah Knight, is black. Knight is the son of the Carter family’s “beloved” maid. He was Carter’s best friend when they were boys. During the 1960s Knight, as a civil right’s activist, was the passive Carter’s link to the Movement. In the 1990s, he becomes Carter’s link to the new South.

In this context Marlette weaves a complex saga of growing up, family, love, mystery and sadness. His success in this effort raises the possibility that his achievements as a writer may someday overshadow his Pulitzer Prize-winning talents as a political cartoonist.

Note: Although the novel is set in Mississippi, North Carolina readers will find familiar scenes that are obviously based on people and events here. For instance, when Carter returns to Troy in the 1990s, his sister points out “a small cast-bronze figure of a man with one hand lifted heavenward in a gesture of command.”

She explains to Carter, “….it’s Hugh. Remember how he used to direct traffic in front of the Starlite Cafe?”

This Hugh Renfro, according to Marlette, was “the retarded son of a respected local physician, had been a well-known town character… always engaging drivers and pedestrians on the streets in conversation and speaking for the most part in rhyme. ‘Hey, pretty girl in your new spring dress, I’ll ask you to marry me and hope you’ll say yes.'”

Many North Carolina readers will know that this Hugh is based on Charlotte’s Hugh McManaway, whose statue at the busy intersection of Queens and Providence Road is a reminder of the times he tried to directed traffic there.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina “Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.