Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ravi Howard/LIKE TREES, WALKING

Like Trees, Walking, by Ravi Howard. When the phone rings at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon, sons of the family owned Deacon Memorial Funeral Home in the early morning hours of March 21, 1981 it is not a routine call. Nineteen year old Michael Donald, a close friend of Paul had been found hanging in a tree in downtown Mobile, Alabama. This fictional tale of an actual event that happened in Alabama is a painful journey for two brothers who are otherwise leading a normal teenage life. It has fallen onto Roy, the main character to take over his father’s business. Deacon Memorial Funeral Home has buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over one hundred years and Paul has already rebelled and made his intent clear that he will not be going into the family business. Roy, who has been working with his father since his early teenage years, brings an unusual, intimate perspective to the deaths that are a natural part of life, but Michael Donald’s brutal murder tests Roy’s ability to continue on in the business he doesn’t want to be in, but feels obligated to continue, for his father’s sake. The response to the murder is inept and devastating, the police focusing on the possibility that the lynching was the result of a drug deal that had gone wrong.

“’I assure you, the Mobile Police Department is going to do all we can to figure this out.’ The sad part was that he probably meant it. He stood tall, as though his posture made the assurance that much stronger. It didn’t matter what he said, because the truth of it was playing out behind him, the Mobile police milling about the block in slow and steady chaos. The only crime scenes I’d seen were on the news and on cop shows. There was always a slew of police officers knocking on doors, canvassing the area, and pursuing the guilty parties with prime-time tenacity. Nothing of the like seemed to be happening on Herndon Avenue. The gathered authorities were taking their turns looking at Mobile’s first lynching in sixty years. Before we left Detective Wilcox, my father made one request. ‘Cut that boy down before his mother gets here.’”

There are many poignant passages throughout this novel. Roy and Paul's grandfather, although he'd been retired ten years shows up to help prepare the body of the dead boy:

"My grandfather had been stifled by the shaking in his hands and a memory that sometimes failed him. We worried that he wouldn't be able to live alone much longer, but as he worked around Michael's head, stitching the ruptured skin and reshaping his face, his hands were steady and his memory was sound.

He remembered things we had never known. How to dress rope-burned skin. How to wire a neck, broken and distended, to make the bones straight again. Arrange the high, starched collar and necktie so they hid the marks that makeup could not conceal. I watched him as he worked, cradling Michael's head in his hands. He held it like he held mine in the waters along the bay, on the summer afternoon he tried to teach me to float. I floated for a while, but when I opened my eyes and realized his hands were gone, and what I felt along my neck and back was just a memory of his fingers, I sank like a rock."


The story follows the activity that ensues in the aftermath of the murder and the mark that a tragedy such as this leaves on everyone it touches. It illuminates how much and how little had changed in the American South in 1981 and shows the impossibility of healing when it seems that there will be no justice.

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