Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Devil in the Grove (Gilbert King) -- A History of Race and a Real-Life Atticus Finch

I confess...this one took me a good while to finish, but it deserves it's own review post.

I don't read a lot of nonfiction but this book really intrigued me and I was excited to receive a copy to review from the folks at Harper.  The book's primary focus is on the case of four African-American men accused of raping a woman in rural Florida in 1949.  The atmosphere at the time almost guaranteed a guilty verdict simply on the accusation, despite many inconsistencies.  The case sparks mob behavior, KKK activity, and involves local law enforcement riddled with racism.  Although the Groveland case is the primary focus, the book also presents an in-depth look at Thurgood Marshall in the years prior to his Supreme Court appointment and the struggle of the NAACP to combat widespread racism in the community and the state and local authorities. 

King does an excellent job with this book, a story that feels like a real-life version of To Kill a Mockingbird.   It is in-depth and clearly extensively researched.  It reads much like a novel, with well-developed portraits of Marshall and others involved in the Groveland case. King develops a well-constructed portrait of a culture dominated by racism in both the general community and in law enforcement institutions.

I found it particularly interesting to read Devil at the same time as race issues are being raised by the death of an unarmed black teenage boy at the hands of a neighborhood watch vigilante.  It gives the reader a lot to think about and I think it would be an excellent addition to classes on race issues in America in the 1940s and 1950s.  Recommended to anyone with an interest in race relations, even those who don't consider themselves history buffs.  Four and a half stars, rounded up for being a readable and accessible history. 

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