Thursday, March 26, 2020

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Review by Bill Johnson

Cover of Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous.
Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous is set in the Ozarks in the early 70s. The main character is Boady, a 15 year old boy raised by a poor mother. Boady attends a nearby Catholic high school on a scholarship, but has no friends in a new school. His dream in life is to save enough money to flee his small town at 16.
The initial thrust of the plot is that Boady hears the story of Lida Poe, a divorced colored woman accused of stealing money from the local manufacturing plant before disappearing. What happened is a clearly defined plot question.

That same day, Boady overhears three seniors talking about dumping some pudding on the one colored freshman girl in the school. On an impulse, Boady trips the senior with the pudding and races away, managing to avoid a beat down in the moment. But he can't avoid the bullies before summer recess, and the leader makes him an offer.

An African-American family is moving in to an old mansion across the gravel road from Boady's house. The father will be a new manager at the local plant.

If Boady spray paints a racial slur on the new home, he will avoid a beating.

Boady agrees so he can get away, but then finds his new neighbors have a son his age. The two become friends, and Boady discovers his casual use of racial language offends.

When the boys go out camping, they find a building in the woods where a racist group called CORPS meets. Close by, Boady's dog finds the hand of Lida Poe sticking out from a shallow grave.

The title of the book is revealed. It is based on part of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that there is nothing more dangerous than racists finding each other and organizing.

Boady expects the revelation that Lida Poe died and didn't flee with embezzled funds will get him on the news. Instead, the local sheriff casually destroys evidence and refuses to follow up leads on who embezzled the money if Lida Poe didn't.

It turns out a leader of CORPS initiated a relationship with Lida Poe and induced her to embezzle, and then had her killed by his son as his initiation into becoming a full member of CORPS.

To keep details of the theft from coming out, a closeted gay man who works with Boady's mother has his house burned down.

With the help of a kind neighbor who has watched out for Boady and his mother, the killer of Lida Poe pays for his crimes.

Nothing More Dangerous explores how racism can be rooted in a small community.

There is never an attempt to call attention to Boady's transformation from small town lad who accepts the racial divide in his town to someone who becomes part of breaking down that division.

Influenced by his friend, Boady decides he will go to college.

The readers of the Allen Esken's novel share Boady's journey, a journey woven into the fabric of the story.

On a personal note, when I was 40, I took a girlfriend to meet my parents. She asked a question about a woman in a family photo album. It turned out my father had been married to an African-American woman before he married my mother. I never knew until that day.

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