Critical Family History Book Review: Sycamore Row

Grisham, Sycamore Row

Grisham, Sycamore Row

How might family history, situated in its wider context, help to explain the actions of a dying man that otherwise seem (to many people, including his family) bizarre? This turns out to be the central question in John Grisham’s riveting novel Sycamore Row, released in 2013.

The novel, set in Ford County, Mississippi, opens with the suicide of Seth Hubbard, an elderly man who is dying of metastasized lung cancer. He hangs himself from a sycamore tree outside the fictional town of Clanton (the same location of an earlier novel, The Last Juror). Hubbard leaves behind a letter specifying how he wants to be buried. He also mails a letter to Jake Brigance, a young lawyer he has never met, and a two-page holographic will, timed so that Jake will receive the envelope the day after his suicide. In the will, Hubbard revokes his earlier will that would have left most of his considerable estate to his two adult children, and instead, leaves 90% of it to his handsome, 47 year-old housekeeper who worked for him during his final three years; he leaves nothing to his children.

What further confounds the local citizenry is that said housekeeper, Letty Lang, is African American. If the holographic will is upheld, she will become far richer than any other African American in the county, not to mention being far richer than the vast majority of the Whites. Added to that, Letty’s no-good husband looks forward to getting his hands on the money, which everyone knows he would only squander. Seth’s two adult children contest the will; the case eventually goes to trial.

In true Grisham style, lawyers by the boatload play various roles, and the trial itself is gripping. The key questions before the jury are: 1) To what extent was Seth, who was dying and in great pain managed with high doses of Demerol, in his right mind when he wrote the will, then hung himself? 2) To what extent might his housekeeper Letty have subjected him to undue influence, even driving him to his office to write the will the day before his suicide?

The answer to why Seth did what he did is bound up in the past and figured out gradually as Letty’s daughter and Jake’s alcoholic partner use family history archival methods (such as studying land records and seeking out oral histories). The answer is also tightly woven into the racial history of the Deep South. I do not wish to give too much away here, except to say that this fast-paced, complex novel works in unexpected ways with Critical Family History. I have read most of Grisham’s novels, always enjoying his plots that keep me guessing, and his detailed use of law and courtroom drama. I am never bored with a Grisham novel.

But Grisham, in Sycamore Row, in addition to using his considerable skill as a storyteller, takes a hard look at race relations in the Deep South where he grew up. Racial prejudice and institutionalized racism are fundamental to the story, and Grisham takes these issues head-on. Sycamore Row leaves us horrified about the racial past and cautiously optimistic about the future (although I think he overestimates the potential of White people who have ties to the Klan, however loose they may be, to change quickly).

I very much recommend this book. As I listened to it (Michael Beck narrates it brilliantly), I took mental notes on how Grisham constructed the plot and characters, and how he wove moral issues with long historical roots into a suspenseful story, to inform my writing of my next novel.

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