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  • By chooze
    Mar 17, 2011
    Asked how he defined a good poem, a poetry editor once said, "It succeeds at what it's trying to do." That's exactly what defines the success of "A Murder Before Eden." The author inherited a gem of a story. In the rural town of Leaksville, North Carolina, events and lives organized themselves forever around the 1947 killing of Tom Pratt, an elderly white North Carolina farmer and the author's great-grandfather. The story is primed from the start by a saucy, too-good-to-be-true wife and a vulnerable Negro kid apparently headed for his cultural destiny. But two factors elevate this murder from one family's dinnertime tale to real theater: a remarkable coincidence of characters who go on to make significant contributions to the history of North Carolina, and the drama of simple Southern people struggling against the social barriers of their time. Some characters strive and sadly fail. Others succeed brilliantly, providing an unexpected epilogue to the murder. The... More > author herself succeeds in the well-telling of the story in part because she is a trained observer. A clinical psychologist, Dr. Alison Pratt attempts to unravel the murder mystery through her extensive archival research and interviews with survivors, as well as her own analysis of the crime, projected through the thoughts of the characters. Ultimately, it is Dr. Pratt’s skillful choice of points of view that enables her, like a good poet, to succeed in what she is trying to do. The narrative seamlessly shifts perspective as the plot unfolds. Starting with a manhunt for the murder suspect, the story flashes back to the prenuptial musings of 77-year-old Tom Pratt, a hard-working widower known as “Old Pa” to his family. Tom’s unanswered question of how he got so lucky in attracting Ruby, a pretty young textile worker half his age, sets up the mystery of his violent end. As the marriage quickly turns into Old Pa’s late-in-life mistake, the thoughts of Tom and Ruby poignantly portray their search for happiness beyond the reach of their temperaments, ages, and social status. Ironically, Tom’s murder does not enhance Ruby’s life ambitions but rather undoes them when it exposes her own past. Naïve in their own ways, they each experience a tragic fall from grace in a town that would later change its name to Eden. The hunt for Tom’s murderer leads local authorities on a chase that unfolds from within the frantic mind of a Usual Suspect. Young Junior Thompson, the son of Old Pa’s black neighbors, already is becoming assimilated into the criminal world at the time of the murder. Yet he is a sympathetic character, not only in the reader’s mind but in historical fact: Convinced of Junior’s innocence, the white victim’s two sons (by his beloved first wife) actually pay for his defense—a stunning violation of social norms in that time and place. A historical intersection of characters occurs at Junior Thompson’s murder trial. The local high drama is viewed from numerous perspectives, from the five-year-old who is paid by the state to draw names for the jury pool to the opposing lawyers, local legends with greater-than-local ambitions. Here the author cleverly chooses to present the facts through the thoughts and the real-life reportage of an enterprising local newspaperman, Mutt Burton. In her introduction to the book, Old Pa’s great-granddaughter explains that it was necessary to fill in the blanks of the narrative with fictional detail. I found, however, that I was quite happy to lose myself in the characters and the momentum of their dramas without wondering about fact versus invention. Following the suggestion in her introduction, I saved her meticulous endnotes for another afternoon’s reading. That was an unexpected treat. The notes provide their own fascinating story, adding more than a few asterisks to the chronicle of North Carolina history. Moreover, the notes provide crucial cultural connective tissue that greatly enriches the story. This was a town in the jaws of social change, and the issues it wrestled with would soon resound throughout the South. I wound up wishing I had paused at the end of each chapter to read the insightful notes while the material still was fresh in my mind. If the writer were, say, a Flannery O’Connor, she could have blended many of the endnote yarns into the narrative. Is that asking too much? ;-) In fact the author does earn enough of her readers’ trust to invite them off the plot path to explore the cultivation and curing of tobacco. I’d have relished more such diversions. If a screenwriter got ahold of this tale, some of the remarkable details tucked in the endnotes could be visually conveyed on film—which is where this rich tale belongs next. With a character named Mutt Burton, how could it not be destined for the big screen?< Less
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Product Details

December 8, 2010
Perfect-bound Paperback
Interior Ink
Black & white
1.08 lbs.
Dimensions (inches)
6 wide x 9 tall
Product ID
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