My latest book featuring investigative journalist Maggie Lyon centers around her work as she determines the true authorship of “Rebel’s Last Yell” commonly attributed to reclusive southern author Ely Pennington. “Rebel’s Last Yell” would typically be assigned for high school reading, and to make Maggie’s story more interesting (and somewhat more understandable), she “found” a 1960s book review of the novel. Though written over 50 years ago, Pennington’s novel of racial terrorism in the Jim Crow South is an iconic masterpiece of American literature, which remains relevant after half a century since its original publication. From Edsell Goodnight’s article in Hewlett’s Literary Review:
Ely Pennington’s Rebel’s Last Yell is part coming-of-age story, civil rights anthem, social commentary, and religious criticism woven from a series of anecdotes and southern folklore. Miss Pennington, an heretofore unknown, has landed squarely in the middle of the modern literary world without prior publication in any periodical, collection, or the briefest of letters to the editor of her hometown newspaper. Her career has seemingly washed ashore like Venus with no traces of a natural literary birth. From whence has she come?
Pennington, clearly influenced by Mark Twain and contemporaries such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee, joins the pantheon of female southern writers, having been thrust instantly into their sorority, but without leaving traces of the usual footsteps to glory. No Harper’s, no Vogue, no Atlantic Monthly. Where has she been, and why not a word until now?
And what words they are, now that this genius has chosen to release her vision to the rest of us. The rhythmic undulations of her prose are like the gentle rippling of a pond on which a pontoon sits with the reader savoring every word and nuanced phrase. Nothing more is required than to open his mind to the vivid imagery, as this newly minted author carries the reader from the shore to greater depths. Once unmoored, stories unfold, reminding us of times described as simpler, but which were far more fraught than the idylls romantic writers have led us to believe.
Set in the 1930s, Pennington immediately introduces us to Jefferson “Little Jeff” McComb of Cumberville, Mississippi whose father Big Jeff is the small-town doctor raising his son as a widowed father with no help except for his devoted housekeeper Olivia and a handyman named Blodgett. Because their house is located on the edge of Cumberville, Little Jeff has few white playmates to choose from and becomes best friends with Olivia’s nephew Titus.
Because Dr. McComb is a wise man of principle and without prejudice, he doesn’t see skin color as a barrier to friendship, and encourages the boys in their summertime pursuits of fishing and exploring the nearby woods. Cumberville is filled with people who do not believe the same way. Since he is their doctor, he cannot risk undermining their confidence in him or his medical practice.
The Great Depression is in full swing and poverty is rife. There is a feeling among impoverished whites that their jobs and their birthrights have been stolen. It’s time to send a message.
One evening, when Titus is staying the night with Little Jeff, Dr. McComb is called away to an emergency after Olivia and Blodgett have gone home. The boys, unsupervised, decide to sneak out of the house and down to the creek to check their trotlines. They can hear music from the midweek prayer service coming across from the black church.
Suddenly the night air is rocked by a series of three explosions followed by what sounds like a pack of howling coyotes. The music has stopped and there is screaming. The full moon, which had lit their way, seems much brighter, but the boys soon realize amidst the screaming that the orange glow is coming from a distant fire. They leave their fishing and head toward the inferno.
Law enforcement doesn’t arrive until dawn when the church is nothing but embers. Two deputies gather information, but insist that the fire was an accident. The church was nothing but a wooden frame structure with no electricity or running water. Lanterns had been used after dark, which they determine was the cause. Six church members are dead, and the protests of the injured go unheard by the deputies who insist that the suddenness of the fire has affected the survivors’ recollection.
The final section of Miss Pennington’s book deals with the following summer when two deputies, also Klan members, go on trial with four other men who have been accused of bombing the black church. There is tremendous conflict in the McComb household as the doctor supports Little Jeff’s decision to testify about what he saw. Oliva is at her breaking point as she cries for her employer not to allow it.
In what is the most memorable passage of the book, Dr. McComb attempts to assuage his housekeeper’s fears while simultaneously demonstrating his character: “Olivia, what kind of man would I be if I stood by and did nothing? What kind of father am I if I do not teach my son that when we hide from the tasks we must face, when we let fear rule us, when we let ignorance rise to power, then we are doomed to live in a society where no one receives justice, the truth is meaningless and corruption is accepted as normal. No, Olivia, out of his love and sense of duty, Little Jeff has more courage than all those cowards who roam the night in white hoods. Those who stand trial may not be found guilty, but they will surely be acquitted if we do nothing. Little Jeff must take the stand, speak the truth and together we’ll face the rebels who have hopefully yelled for the last time.”
Time will tell whether or not Miss Pennington has given readers the best she has to offer, but Gentle Reader, your faithful book reviewer believes that this author’s literary well runs deep, and our thirst will be quenched repeatedly in the years to come.
© 2018 by Patrick Brown
Pennington’s Hoax is published by W&B Publishers and available at Amazon. To learn more about my other books, including Murdered Justice, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1