BOOK REVIEW: 'Blood on the Roses' Captures Southern Racist Terror in the mid-1950s

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Blood on the Roses' Captures Southern Racist Terror in the mid-1950s
Au clair de la lune / Mon ami Pierrot / Prete-moi ta plume / Pour ecrire un mot...

Driving from California to West Virginia in  2001,  only a few dozen  miles past Forest, Mississippi on Interstate 20, I saw a sign for the turnoff to Philadelphia, north on Highway 15. I shuddered, thinking of the events of 1964 in Neshoba County, when a young black man from Meridian, MS, James Chaney, 21,  and two Jewish men from the north, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were lynched by racists in one of the most racist of states at the time.

The murder of the three men occurred shortly after midnight on June 21, 1964, when they went to investigate the burning of a church that supported civil rights activity. James Chaney was a local Freedom Movement activist in Meridian, Michael Schwerner was a CORE organizer from New York, and Andrew Goodman, also from New York, was a Freedom Summer volunteer.

 The murders highlighted the civil rights activities of American Jews, later spurned by far too many in the Civil Rights movement because of the anti-Semitism of people like Louis "Hymietown" Farrakhan. There weren't many people named Ali or Mohammed in the civil rights "freedom summer" of '64 -- but there were plenty who shared the heritage of Goodman and Schwerner. Why blacks should embrace Islam, a religion that has enslaved them repeatedly  in both the past and present (see Sudan) is beyond my comprehension, but there's no explaining Jew hatred.
Robert Hays
Robert Hays

The events of the  novel "Blood on the Roses" (Vanilla Heart Publishing, 398 kb  Kindle eBook from Amazon, Kobo from Kobo Bookstore, $4.99, about 76,000 words) by Robert Hays occur almost a decade before, in the autumn of 1955, but they resonate strongly since they take place in the aftermath of the lynching of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta region in August 1955.

In the autumn of 1955, at the height of America’s concern over the murder of Chicagoan Till, 14, by white racists  and in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation, Bill Skyles, Rachel Feigen’s  editor at the Associated Press in Baltimore, sends her to eastern Tennessee to investigate a missing person case. Feigen, the daughter of a distinguished New York judge, had already reported about the  snail-like pace of desegregation in the wake of the previous year's Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Guy Saillot’s last contact with his family was a postcard from the Tennessee Bend Motel, a place catering to hunters and fishermen near scenic Cherokee Lake. She has counted innumerable "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards driving in her brand new cream-colored Chevrolet hardtop to the motel from Baltimore in those pre-Interstate days. But she finds no record that he ever stayed there. She's at the motel because the young French-American man, who is gay, apparently stayed there on his way to Knoxville to meet a friend.

Feigen learns that the motel caretaker, a deaf-mute black man named George, may know something about the missing man. George’s consuming interest is the Tennessee Bend’s arresting rose garden—its only truly positive quality—and she gains his favor by showing her appreciation for his beautiful roses. 

Feigen quickly finds herself caught up in the bigotry she expected to observe as an outsider when three local extremists, led by the motel's manager Barney Vidone,  decide to teach a lesson to this “uppity jewgirl” from the North who’s poking around in things that are none of her business.

 Their plan? Kidnap two black men and lock them and Feigen in Room 10 of the Tennessee Bend, complete with its two-way mirror voyeur’s window, and let nature take its course. They’re confident the men’s “jungle instincts” will take over and she’ll get her comeuppance, after which they’ll give the “boys” a good whipping for messing with a white woman. But the two men taken at gunpoint, an Army sergeant just back from Korea and an Urban League attorney from Philadelphia, don’t play the game the way their captors expect.

Charlie Monroe, the venerable FBI man from Knoxville whose Southern roots run deep, provides probably the best summation of  the pervading evil of this time and place: “It’s easy to condemn. But prejudice is an unpastured dragon . . . Let it loose, nurture it with a little ignorance and fear, and pretty soon it’s in all the dark places and if we’re not careful we’ll all be devoured in its ugly flame.” Monroe provides the novel with a great deal of humor with his rhyming stories...Look for them!

Robert Hays, 76, now retired from teaching at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign,  writes his fourth novel (he's written nonfiction, too)  with an experienced journalist’s careful attention to detail, drawn from his own half-century love affair with the American South. In an email to me, he described how his military training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. (where I also spent some delightful weeks in the summer of '57)  and Fort Jackson, SC, helped in describing the experiences of the kidnapped sergeant in the novel. He met his wife of more than 50 years while serving his country in Columbia, SC

 "Blood on the Roses" is a frank and honest story that does justice to its splendid east Tennessee setting. The ugliness of so many people in the novel is in sharp contrast to the region's scenic beauty, but Rachel encounters many people who are good at heart; they're overwhelmed by decades of institutionalized racism and turn away in denial from the  acts of violent racism carried out by a few. As I've found from living in two states with strong Southern influences --West Virginia and now Texas -- Southerners are a complicated people.

About the author
Robert Hays has been a newspaper reporter, public relations writer, magazine editor, and university professor and administrator. A native of Carmi, Illinois, he taught in Texas and Missouri and retired in 2008 from a long journalism teaching career at the University of Illinois. He served in the U.S. Army and holds three degrees, including an interdisciplinary Ph.D., from Southern Illinois University. He has spent a great deal of time in South Carolina, the home state of his wife, Mary, and is a member of the South Carolina Writers Workshop. His publications include academic journal and popular periodical articles and eight books, one released in paperback under a new title. His three most recent books are novels. Robert and Mary live in Champaign, Illinois. They have two sons and a grandson and share (long story!) a cat named Eddie with the family next door. Hays emailed me a photo of Eddie and he is indeed a handsome feline! 
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