In the spring of ’51, Ressa McMahon and her family’s life change with the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Luther, one of their hired hands, begs Ressa’s father, Warren, to help him find his “son” Marvin who was abducted by the Klan. Marvin also works in the family orchard and has been a friend of the McMahon’s, teaching Ressa and her brothers about baseball. The two men find Marvin’s lifeless body. Over the next year, the Klan becomes bolder and Warren becomes more insistent in his demand for justice, eventually working with the FBI to bring about indictments and helping to destroy the Klan in Central Florida.
As Ressa experiences these events, she’s still a young girl. She develops a pen pal friendship with Vaylie and the two of them discover the secret of Miss Maybelle Mason, the bitter postmistress who protects government property like the benches in front of the post office from abuse by children. They learn that this old maid’s fiancé was killed during the Great War and gain empathy for her. Ressa also learns the truth of many leaders of Mayflower, including the sheriff deputy that pulled the trigger that killed Marvin. She has an eccentric, yet wise, grandmother (she goes by Doto, a name based on her choice in a car, the DeSoto). Doto tells her grandchildren, “We can’t change the world outright. But we begin by changing the way we choose to live n it.” (166) Ressa and her brothers play with rattlesnakes (her brother even catches one in the post office, earning him the respect of the postmistress. She keeps up with the Brooklyn Dodgers and especially Jackie Robinson. All this occurs while, in the background, the NAACP is attempting to register voters and the Klan is attacking everyone from the black voter registration workers to Jews and Catholics.
Although this book came highly recommended and I enjoyed reading it, I found many of the characters to be one dimensional. Ressa and her father come across as overly righteous. Even her brother, preferring to catch and release a rattlesnake caught inside the post office seems far fetched for rural Florida in 1951 (for many people it would be far fetched today). I wondered if this “playing” with snakes was a sign of their righteousness and a subtle reference to Scripture (Mark 16:17, where disciples are said to be able to handle snakes and not be harmed). The final showdown between Warren and Emmett Casselton (who owns a large citrus orchard and is the leader of the Klan) is surreal. The FBI has seized all the dynamite from all the orchard men (who uses dynamite to blow up old stumps) except for Warren. Once the Klan has attacked his family, Warren threatens to blow up one of Casselton’s businesses or fishing camps. In the end, the two of them call a truce and Warren, as a sign of his intentions, blows up his dynamite in an old dry sinkhole. This “destruction” of his dynamite breaks opens a vein of water, filling the sink hole with water. The book ends with this “baptism” and with the acknowledgement that Casselton is a man of his word.
McCarthy draws heavily on sayings and wisdom that are so Southern. In referring to the Sheriff and a member of the Klan who says “he’s looking into Marvin’s death,” Luther retorts, that’s “‘bout like a diamondback wonder’ where that rattlin’ noise come from.” (50) Marvin, quoting Red Barber (the voice of the Dodgers), claims that “baseball’s a bit of Heaven on Earth,” and he goes on to prove it, assigning spots for the members of the Trinity as well as angels and Cherubims and Seraphims (70-71). Warren, in discussing how the problems will be resolved after the Klan has attacked a synagogue and a Catholic Church, threatening Florida’s tourist business, says: “Nothing like an endangered pocketbook to help a businessman find his conscience.” (111)
McCarthy also draws heavily on religious symbolism, but I would have liked to seen her go deeper dinto the contractions embedded in religion and Southern culture. She tells of one member of the Klan being a member of a small Presbyterian Church, but doesn’t make much of a deal with her own church (Baptist) where her father is the choir director. Were there members of the Klan there? In her father’s choir? However, she does emphasize the importance of the church in the African-American community.
Lay that Trumpet in our Hands is a novel based on true events.
Although I fear I might sound too much like Jeremiah Wright, I’m going to go ahead and share this quote I came across yesterday in a book review: “How strange our maudlin of horror at the arrival of terrorism in the U.S. on 9/11—as though the Klan had not terrorized whole black communities out of existence for decades.” This quote was enlightening and seems informative in relation to McCarthy’s book. The review was of Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity an the Battle for the Soul of a Nation by Rodney Clapp.
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