Freedom Summer

By Christopher Dickey | October 29th, 2006 | The New York Times Sunday Book Review

The finest journalist of the New South when it was still new, back in the 1960’s, was Ralph McGill, publisher of The Atlanta Constitution. “I believe in being strongly partisan on issues which require a choice,” he wrote in his 1963 memoir, “The South and the Southerner.” “There are some newspapers which are mute and others which carefully engage only editors with chronic laryngitis. But there comes a time in all controversies when one must hit the issue right on the nose or turn tail and die a little.”

Doug Marlette, a self-aware Southern journalist and a promiscuous position-taker who worked briefly, years after McGill, for the same paper, doesn’t turn tail and doesn’t have much respect for those who do. Styling himself an “equal opportunity offender,” he’s spent decades attacking hypocrites and blowhards with hisPulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoons, in his “Kudzu” comic strip and most recently in fiction. “My talent is like a pit bull on a very long leash, and each day when I take it out for a stroll I hold on for dear life,” said the cartoonist-protagonist of Marlette’s first novel, “The Bridge” (2001). There’s no question Marlette was talking about himself.

In “Magic Time,” Marlette’s second novel, he’s trying to put that dog on the scent of something big: his own vision of the South and Southerners, and, indeed, of America. Marlette wants to hunt out and attack the seminal issues — race, history, shame — that McGill wrote about. So he walks the trail back to the same moment, the early 1960’s, in a place, Mississippi, where choices were stark and, yes, very much required, yet many Southerners tried like hell not to make them.

The novel’s pivotal events take place during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the months that followed, as volunteers poured into the state to register black voters in the face of bitter white opposition and increasingly savage violence. That June, in the world of fact, three young civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman from New York, and James Chaney, a black from Mississippi — were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Some of the killers were eventually convicted by federal courts, while others, including the suspected ringleader, Edgar Ray Killen, were released because of hung juries. Four decades later, Killen was brought to trial again and convicted last year on three counts of manslaughter. The case followed the rearrest and trial, in 1994, of Byron De La Beckwith, who was finally convicted for murdering the civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963.

Alongside these historical events, and drawing from them, Marlette creates a narrative where nothing and no one is quite real; all is more or less subtle caricature. (One resists using that word, since the novelist is best known as a cartoonist but, well, there it is.) The effect is sometimes amusing, sometimes disconcerting, and occasionally embarrassing as Marlette plays with stereotypes of Southerners, blacks and Jews. But the storytelling is involving and the plot wondrously complicated: a tall tale about terrible times that were, in memory, magical and magnificent. Marlette’s epigraph, from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” sets the tone perfectly: “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”

In “Magic Time,” history is compressed; the present is not now, but 1991. The character at the center of the story is Carter Ransom, a Southerner transplanted to Manhattan, a bachelor approaching 50, who writes a column for one of the New York tabloids. “His style reflected the fierceness, undercut with self-mockery, of the conservatives he had grown up with,” Marlette writes. “Carter was a one-man journalistic subspecies, unpredictably blending reportage, attitude and a respect for the irony of history.” When terrorists blow up the “Institute of Modern Art” in Mid-town during the Persian Gulf war, Ransom thinks of his country’s own original sin, slavery and race hate: “The aftermath of this — the worst terrorist attack on American soil — had seemed sickeningly familiar to Carter, recalling the bombed-out ruins of his home state from a time when the Americans who lived under threat of terrorism were black Southerners. ‘The shadow of death,’ read the last line of his column, ‘has now fallen on all Americans.’ ”

And so the story begins. Under the weight of his memories from 1964 and 1965, Ransom has a breakdown. During Freedom Summer, he had been a young journalist working for his hometown paper in Troy, Miss. He had dropped out of law school against the wishes of his father, a respected judge, and begun reporting on a group of white and black activists operating out of an old roadhouse called Magic Time just outside town. One of those “agitators” was the charismatic son of the Ransom family’s loyal maid. (Called “Nettie,” she seems to be based on Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” in the movie “Gone With the Wind.”) Another was a beautiful Jewish New Yorker, Sarah Solomon, with whom Ransom fell in love. Sarah was killed, along with other friends, when the church where they were teaching black children was bombed. Ransom never recovered from the loss.

Ransom goes home after his breakdown in 1991 to convalesce in a South, now the Sunbelt, that has become more like the rest of America. At the same time, America has become more like the South, with “its defiant innocence and straightforward pieties, and faith in expiation.”

In Mississippi, the agitators who survived the 1960’s have gone on to prosper, and race hate seems to have faded like a Confederate flag left to tatter in the sun. Nettie’s son is now a congressman, the mayor of Troy is black, most of the white supremacists are dead, rotting in jail, or relics of themselves. But a beautiful and ambitious young state prosecutor is determined to retry and convict at last the mastermind of the church bombing that killed Sarah. As old memories and new revelations come to light, Ransom and his friends are forced to re-examine the way they were, and what they have become. “The cunning of the South,” Ransom says, “is that we act on our worst instincts and convince ourselves they’re our best.” With his caricatures in “Magic Time,” and in that phrase, Marlette has captured something essential about the spirit of our age.


Starred Review: Magic Time 

June 15, 2006 | Kirkus Reviews

A middle-aged New York columnist re-explores a personal tragedy that occurred during the Civil Rights era.

The son of Judge Mitchell Ransom has been in New York for some time, a rising star in the newspaper business. Yet Carter Ransom is going home to Troy, Miss. Four people died in a church bombing in 1965, among them the love of Carter's life. Now roughly 30 years later, the ghosts of Mississippi are awakened once again. Marlette (The Bridge, 2001), a Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, blends the events leading up to the original bombing with the modern-day trial of a Klan leader who may have ordered the attack. Using an intriguing cast of characters past and present, Marlette sets the stage for an intricate story of love, struggle and terror. The past unfolds as if the reader were sharing the moment. Change is in the air, but so is fear. Carter's best friend, Elijah Knight, is leading the drive to register black voters. Unable to handle the rigidity of law school and the shadow of his father, Carter is adrift. Sarah Solomon, a Barnard girl from New York, has joined the movement. She and Carter first meet at Magic Time, a legendary blues joint long faded into the overgrown honeysuckle. Two young people believe they can change the world. It is a poignant and beautiful courtship, but it ends in tragedy. Marlette uses Carter's past experience to explore similar tension in the modern world. There is unrest in New York following a terrorist attack. Questions arise about Mitchell Ransom's actions in the 1965 bombing trial. Carter finds himself questioning all that has ever mattered to him. For a news columnist from New York, the only way to confront the demons of the past is to force them to speak. Marlette sets a harmonic tone, both glorious and deeply moving.

Perfectly captures a time of epic change. An exceptional work of Southern fiction.


Echoes of a summer of living dangerously

By Surekha Vijh  |  November 26, 2006 | The Boston Globe

Doug Marlette's "Magic Time" is a touching memorial to the spirited young activists who paid the ultimate price in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. In a remarkable portrayal of the intricate lives of his characters, the prize-winning master storyteller knits a beguiling tale of love, idealism, family, mystery , and long-awaited triumph of justice.

"Magic Time" vividly captures the spirit of an era of epic change that energized thousands across the North and the South who were part of an unforgettable chapter in American history. It was the summer that rewrote America's destiny, and Marlette , in a fair and accountable effort , brings the people from that period alive.

The book, the second novel by Marlette, a Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, is a complex blend of historical details, mysterious family relations, greed for power and dominance , and tragic anecdotes. It reopens the murder case of four young civil rights activists, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee .

The story revolves around Carter Ransom, a New York Examiner columnist who grew up in Troy, Miss., during the Shiloh Baptist Church bombing. Carter had been in love with one of the victims of the bombing, Sarah Solomon, a Jewish civil rights worker from New York . His father, Judge Mitchell Ransom, presided over the murder trial . Now, three decades later, after a terrorist group bombs a Manhattan museum and Carter suffers an emotional breakdown, he comes home to recuperate.

Carter has never fully come to terms with Sarah's death, and he is drawn to the reopening of the Shiloh bombing case. An ambitious young state prosecutor, Sydney Rushton, finds evidence that the trial was faulty , even fraudulent. Two men were convicted, but the instigator, Samuel Bohannon, Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard, along with his second-in-command , Glen Boutwell, had escaped conviction . Boutwell has died, but Bohannon becomes the target of the second trial, with Lacey Hullender, a former Klansman, testifying against him. Sydney is bent on collecting all evidence against Bohannon and anyone who gets in her way, including Carter's father, who supposedly covered up the crime . Carter, meanwhile, discovers many more unpleasant secrets about his father's life and develops a tense relationship with him.

In "Magic Time," Marlette paints a detailed picture of a unique time in a town in the Deep South . He moves back and forth between the events of 1964 and the second trial, in the early 1990s , reinforcing his place as a writer of Southern fiction , after his debut novel, "The Bridge." He has an understanding of the region in the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, and of its reshaping in the aftermath.

"Magic Time" is a page-turner , its intricate plot matched by the profundity of its moral vision. It is a compelling legal thriller, touching tribute, and zesty love story, rolled into one . Marlette has crafted an exceptional work of Southern fiction.

Surekha Vijh is an award-winning poet and journalist based in New York. 

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.


Mississippi Yearning
By W. Ralph Eubanks | Wednesday, September 20, 2006 | The Washington Post
who is the author of "Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past"

By some strange twist of the cosmos, Mississippi came to be inhabited by characters, both real and imagined, who never lose their ability to entertain and enthrall. Consequently, a real Mississippi story keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat, guessing what will happen next, even if you've heard it before. Perhaps telling stories comes naturally for natives of the Magnolia State because the storytelling material there is as rich and deep as the topsoil that covers the broad expanse of the Delta.
In his second novel, "Magic Time," Doug Marlette shows that he knows a good Mississippi story when he sees one. He also weaves the best details of each little story into a single big one, demonstrating a grasp of the cultural mind-set of the state as well the conflicts it can impose on its inhabitants and expatriates.
New York newspaper columnist Carter Ransom, who grew up in the fictional southeastern town of Troy, Miss., finds himself face to face with a traumatic yet defining incident from his past. After a terrorist bombing in a New York museum, which he believes has killed his girlfriend, his thoughts and emotions drift back to the summer of 1964. Carter's first love was a young civil rights worker, Sarah Solomon, who was killed in a firebombing by a band of Ku Klux Klansmen in his home town. Faced with losing another loved one in a bombing attack, Carter breaks down and returns to his home state to recover.
Over the years, Carter's life in New York sheltered him from his past. But now his separate planes of existence have collided. To complicate his psychological recovery, soon after Carter returns home, one of the men accused of murdering his first girlfriend is brought back to trial using evidence gleaned from the co-conspirators as well as from the files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. But this new material might also implicate Carter's father, who was the judge in the original trial, in concealing evidence to protect a prominent businessman.
Mississippi's separate space-time continuum forces the action in "Magic Time" to move between Carter's year-long relationship with Sarah in 1964 and the events leading up to the trial in the present day. Marlette's clear writing and his ability to build suspense helps the book flow smoothly between these two periods. Along the way, the reader experiences the evolution of the inner life of the main characters, as well as the romance between Carter and Sarah. What makes the story convincing is that Carter is not converted to the movement's way of thinking immediately by his relationship with Sarah. Initially, he views her as an idealistic, outside agitator. But over time, as their relationship develops, he changes, eventually coming to the realization that "in the South, being had always transcended doing; faith trumped works. The region had leveraged a cult of chivalry out of slavery, after all. How to describe to anyone outside the South the ways love and evil were entwined and fused beyond the means of interpretation or reason? How to account for loving the sinner when the sin was so despicable?"
Setting a novel in the days when Mississippi burned, with the passion of those who sought to bring change and those who fought that change, presents a risky proposition for a writer. Many of the real characters from that time have either been glorified or reduced to stereotypes. To complicate things even more, how can an original story use historical events that a reader might know well and not feel contrived or staged?
Despite the temptation to build a novel around these characters, events and historical settings, Marlette avoids the pitfalls and creates a book that is charming, engaging and gripping. Along the way, "Magic Time" artfully combines elements of a number of civil rights stories. Even when I thought I knew the details of these events, as well as the personalities of his characters, Marlette shaped the action in a way that made the story his own.
My only criticism of "Magic Time" is that I wish it had not been tied up so neatly. There are parts of the book I wanted to see resolved and others that I wanted to see left in a mess, just as events are in the Mississippi that I know and sometimes struggle to love. But this is a quibble. Overall, "Magic Time" presents a realistic portrait of the collective amnesia of the South and the generational tensions that the civil rights movement stirred up, then and now. It's a real Mississippi story, not merely a faded imitation.


Courage to face down evil
by Kathleen Parker | October 27, 2006

When a news item crossed my desk a few days ago noting the 39th anniversary of the federal verdicts in the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, I was reading a novel about the same period.

Seven men were convicted on federal charges of conspiracy to deny civil rights, but none served more than six years. That travesty of justice, combined with insight that only fiction can reveal, prompted one of those rare moments of lucidity when one sees clearly what was -- and what needs to be.
The novel is Doug Marlette's "Magic Time." The story is about a newspaper columnist Carter Ransom, who is drawn from his present-day job in New York City -- where a terrorist bomb has just destroyed an art museum -- to his Southern past in Mississippi during the civil rights era. Through Ransom's eyes, we see the affinity between those who murdered civil rights workers and those who blow up art museums. Or fly airplanes into buildings. Fueled by resentment, both wrap themselves in a mantle of religion.
It so happens that Marlette, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, spent part of his childhood in Laurel, Miss. He went to school with the children of those charged with killing Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
When Marlette saw the planes hit the World Trade Center five years ago, his first association was to the "bitter, resentful, powerless religious fanatics of the American South" who waged war on the civil rights movement of his youth.
Marlette wanted to examine what effect the big moral issues have on people, how their lives are transformed, how they live the rest of their lives. This is a consistent theme for Marlette, whose family, like Forrest Gump, often seems to be present in the cross hairs of history. His previous novel, "The Bridge," concerned the Carolina mill strikes during which his own grandmother was bayoneted by National Guardsmen. Speaking recently at a meeting of the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance, Marlette remarked on his family's "Gumpian" obliviousness to the significance of their roles in major historical events.
That obliviousness speaks to us all. We read the headlines and somehow it all seems to be happening to someone else, says Marlette. That sense of history in the everyday, and that what we do matters, is what he captures in his new novel.
Marlette is especially riveted by the "Good German phenomenon" -- how good people can avert their gaze from horror. How did decent people look the other way when Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, young men in their 20s, were savagely beaten and shot to death?
We don't have to ask what the terrorists will do. We've seen their work and witnessed their zeal. The religious fanatics who wage war against the West are no less certain of their cause than were the Ku Klux Klanners who bombed black churches and believed the Jews were destroying civilization.
It seems that every generation is doomed to test itself or be tested, and evil is ever resourceful. The trick is recognizing evil for what it is, and having the courage to face it down.
Southern white Christians abdicated their moral responsibility and demonstrated their cowardice and complicity by allowing Klansmen to hijack their religion and terrorize blacks in the name of their Jesus. If Muslims want theirs to be taken seriously as the religion of peace they claim it to be, they will have to marginalize and condemn those they insist have hijacked their religion.

Parker is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Contact her
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