JoeyPinkney.com Book Review
Southern Strife: A Novel of Racial Tension in the 1960s
5 out of 5 stars
“Southern Strife: A Novel of Racial Tension in the 1960s” is Valerie Stocking’s sophomore effort. The notion of “sophomore slump” does not apply. This novel is a powerful portrayal of America’s not-so-distant history in dealing with the false concept of this country being a melting pot.
“Southern Strife” is refreshingly offensive. I say that because Valerie Stocking sculpted the characters in a realistic manner and not in a way that would fit in a neat, little box. Stocking’s portrayal of racism within the pages of “Southern Strife” is like an honest parent’s portrayal of Christmas. (“Honey, there is no Santa Claus. I bought you those presents under the Christmas tree…”)
To that effect, the bourgeoisie of the small town of Willets Point, FL, casually call black people niggers. As a black person in America, I could gasp, mutter obscenities and stop dead in my reading tracks. But why? The author’s intention is not to shock or to antagonize, but to educate and to cause reflection.
The author uses Willets Point as a microcosm of the effects of racism on both black and white people in 1960s America with twelve-year-old Joy Bradford uncomfortably stuck in the middle. With her scotch-loving aunt being one of Willets Point’s key socialites and her narcissistic mother seeking the affections of her divorce lawyer who is also the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, Joy’s experience with racism is more than casual.
Although immersed in the racist culture, Joy is disgusted and put off. Furthermore, her friendship with the biracial Clay Dooley allows her to see that a human is a human regardless of color. Being an outcast from the east coast, she is also able to relate to Clay, who moved with his parents from Atlanta, because they were both shunned at school. The bond slowly grows in spite of the forbidden friendship.
“Southern Strife” is much, much more than a story about racism. There are many points and counterpoints cleverly woven into the fabric of this novel. There is a jagged mother/daughter relationship that has some very interesting qualities. When Jessica abandons her husband and moves to back to Willets Point, her dislike for her husband extends to Joy. Jessica and Joy are as opposite as a mother and a daughter could be. Joy, being overweight, pale and average in the looks department, is a stark contrast to Jessica who is tan, thin and very attractive for her age. Joy is an obvious burden in the eyes Jessica, who can not wait to kick Joy out of the house once she turns sixteen. Joy also has to deal with her mother’s mental health issues which causes some pretty interesting, yet sad, plot twists throughout this book.
Valerie Stocking indirectly highlights motherhood in “Southern Strife” three different ways. One is the “wicked witch” style Jessica gives to Joy. There is the I-raised-you-to-marry-wealthy-and-you-still-end-up-piss-poor style that Jessica’s aunt Margaret shows. Very subtly, there is also the quintessential loving mother which is represented in Inga Dooley, mother of Clay.
Similar to the uneven relationship between Jessica and Joy, Jessica and her Aunt Margaret have many points of contention. Margaret is a wealthy widow. To Margaret, Jessica is a wayward niece whose well has run dry and had it made but didn’t want to make it work with her husband. Margaret groomed Jessica to live in the lap of luxury. In Margaret’s opinion, Jessica drops the ball when Jessica leaves her husband. Although Margaret disapproves of the impending divorce, she is quick to stir up Willets Point’s eligible bachelors from Jessica’s past. These two men have a very interesting history, to say the least. Their subtle struggle for power plays out on a myriad of levels.
Another interesting aspect of “Southern Strife” are the black people, in general and specifically. The black people who live on the outskirts of Willets Point are deemed to be the scum of the earth and are constantly reminded of “their place”. Added to that dilema is Clytus Dooley, father of the aforementioned Clay. Educated, stubborn, passionate – Clytus comes to Willets Point because his wife, a tall blonde from Europe, wants to tend to her sick mother.
In Clytus’ eyes, moving to Willets Point could to fill a void in this life: his desire to show himself and his reluctant father that white people and black people can do business together on equal terms. Stocking does a great job of showing the turmoil of living through the exhausting stress of wanting to be more than what society is willing to let you be through Clytus Dooley’s character.
Coming in at a healthy 435 pages, “Southern Strife” is not a short read. There were a few lulls in the plot here and there, but that is to be expected in a book of this length. The original title of “Southern Strife” was “The Promised Land”. I didn’t like the original book’s cover that well. Prior to the writing of this book review, the title changed as well as the book’s cover. Even though I liked the original title, I like the current book cover much better.
Valerie Stocking is an experienced writer, and “Southern Strife” whisks you away into its world with richly developed characters, scenic landscapes and poignant internal and external conflicts. The author makes great use of non-linear storytelling. As the time periods ebb and flow, situations become more clear yet more complicated.