Showing posts with label Albert French. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Albert French. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What Happened to Billy?

How in the world can I put the experience of reading this book into words? Maybe I should step back and do what I always do in the process of finding the right words, which is talk about how I've come across a particular book. For starters, I'm never one to turn away from contemporary African-American literature that pre-dates the Civil Rights era (though I always go beyond).  And although I spotted the book online, that didn't deter that near cosmic whiff I've gathered for sometimes nailing a darn good book via the Internet—as opposed to settling with the first couple of chapters within the bookstore.

I've never heard of the author of Billy, Albert French.  Post-Billy, I did a little research and realized that his catalog of available titles are sadly sparse.  This may attribute to me not knowing who he was, and why I haven't heard of him.  Or heard of his debut, Billy.  That’s discouraging, really.  I found French is an amazing writer, and one who really took me there with the rawness of Billy.  So with that being said, to read more of his biography, click the link HERE .  You'll find that French's personal story is inspiring, and that’s besides him penning Billy in six weeks.  

Those six weeks read more like six months of work.

Except for a slight adjustment in the omniscient narrative taking place in the beginning of the book (French‘s use of old, rural Mississippi parlance to illustrate the setting and characters eventually dials down), Billy was truly an outstanding (as well as a literarily upsetting) journey into the extreme justices that took place over blacks pre-Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s (I should actually mention that the NAACP begin the anti-lynching campaign in the 1930s, which has a slight correlation to the choice of events that took place in Billy). It’s an example the likes I've never really seen in literature, considering it involves a ten-year-old boy with anything but murder as his intent when he accidentally stabs a fifteen-year-old white girl named Lori. With that said, I kind of want to get away from French’s coherent forms and language/word choice and focus more on the social discussion surrounding Billy.

The tragedy of the story happens during an unsettling altercation between Lori and Billy. Billy and his best friend, Gumpy, crossed a bridge of railroad tracks out of segregation and into the white community of their town. Hopping along, they come across a pond (enthused to collect redbacks from within it) on a patch of private property farmland.  Instead of catching redbacks (a type of salamander) they find themselves in an inhospitable and violent confrontation with two girls, Lori, and her cousin, Jenny. The two girls attack; Jenny jumps Gumpy while Lori takes on Billy as he emerges from the pond.  The prideful Billy, having his face snubbed, beaten, and spat upon in the mud by Lori, eventually ends up escaping his assailant. Nonetheless, the event becomes increasingly deadly when Billy chooses to follow a fleeing Gumpy with Lori's aggressive taunts following his backside.  And because he doesn't react any further, it’s then that Lori (just as prideful and fiery as Billy) decides she hasn't had enough of him.  With Lori closing in for another attack, Billy stands prepared in his misguided self-defense and ends up puncturing Lori’s heart with a switchblade.

While she is a by-product of segregated views and societal entitlement, Lori was older than Billy, bigger than him, stronger than him, and very much in control than Billy.  Whereas Billy is from a community who couldn't fight back without the onslaught of further terror and deepened segregation, something that took place to the harm of Billy's community after the events.  In many ways, Billy and Lori seemed a touch alike, both seemed injudicious in their own way as children during that time.  However, the obvious difference lie in the fact that if the events have been reversed, Lori would hardly find herself tried as an adult facing first-degree murder. She would not find herself before a jury, slapping her with a death sentence in a guilty verdict that took less than twenty-four hours to "sinuate"—so to speak.  And most assuredly, it wouldn’t have been Lori strapped to an electric chair screaming for Jesus and her mother as those chilling last pages illustrated Billy’s death without a single syntactic wince. Well, frankly, nothing in this book was winced. It was all there. Front and center. Vivid and clear. Nothing fading to black. Only prevailing details that shaped the characters and setting, as well as the social focus, racism, and the ugliness of capital punishment for juveniles during a time (maybe some questionable cases in today’s age) where there were no civil rights for blacks to challenge those in authority.

Before I even read Billy, I remember telling myself that I hope this book didn't make me mad—didn't upset me. It did, but it didn't, until the final chapters when you watch Billy suffer up toward his death. That part was the painful part. And while I did feel for Lori, it can be said that Billy's story drew out a range of emotions unexplored from a book addressing this period.  As I mentioned, probably because it involved children.

So with so much of that said, should you ever find yourself looking for an author outside of Morrison, Wright, Ellison, or Gaines, please pick up Billy.

The following passage is taken from the book.  It's a reflection of one of the older members of Billy's community, Patch.  Here, she monologues how her age has caused her to see many tragedies within the community, and how Billy's approaching troubles are partly one on a long list.

"Old Patch folks just kept sitting.  Reverend Sims told them everything would be all right.  Them real old ones that done seen some time, knew them days Mister Pete talked about, had sad eyes.  Netty Lou Moore remembered things Mister Pete forgot.  She could remember before them Yankee soldiers come; she could remember belonging to them Hatchers too.  She told Reverend Sims, 'Ah done seens some bad times.  Wasn't nothin be back here.  Ya has ta wades in the Catfish ta gits back in here.  Ah remembers.  Its was right ups there.  Ya sees where the roads be now.  Its was right theres they comes.  Never forgits.  Theys come and gits that boy.  Ah remembers.  They comes and gits him.  His name was Elijah, that's what his name was.  Theys come down on thems horses and gits that boy.  Says he was stealin and doin too much lookin at thats white man's woman he was doin for.  Theys comes down here on thems horses and drags thats boy.  He sayin he ain'ts dids it, but theys drags him away and theys hang him rights down theres where the roads goes over the Catfish.  Thems were bad times.  Ya all can'ts remember.  Wern'ts born yets.  Thems were bad times.  They's comin agins.'"

~ Billy by Albert French

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