When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Bradley Greenburg

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Reviewed by Victoria Best

One of the best experiences in reviewing books is when a book for which you have no particular expectations turns out to be both engrossing and surprising. Bradley Greenburg’s debut novel of life in a small frontier town in Indiana, riven by social conflict between the blacks and the whites, is both a slice of forgotten history and a profoundly compelling story of one family’s determined quest for a decent standard of living. It’s also an insightful study of the roots of the American dream, and how the freedom that forms the foundation stone of modern America was so readily corrupted in its earliest days by the competition for riches and resources that still rules a so-called civilised world.

‘Clayton McGhee turned six the year he was emancipated by proclamation,’ the novel begins. ‘He asked his granny what emancipation meant and she said it was like being let into a fancy store but with no money to buy anything.’ It’s 1863 and Clayton and his family are currently in Alabama but longing to escape ‘the resignation sewn into the fabric of the South.’ His father, James, has a vision of a better life and believes it can’t be lived in a place where ‘they’s too much that can’t be fixed by a war, won or not.’ And so James takes his life in his hands (quite literally in a country still sore and often lawless), and journeys north to find a quiet, gentle place where his family can put down independent roots, free of their past.

In LaFayette in Indiana he runs into trouble: two young men attacking a woman and a small boy. Instinctively James intervenes, but in the middle of the rout he himself is knocked out and comes to in jail, aware of how misleading his circumstances might look. The woman he saved refuses to talk, but he asks the Sheriff, a kind and just man, to search for the boy. He turns out to be the Sheriff’s own son, June (short for Junior), a troubled lad missing his recently deceased mother. June confirms the truth of James’ story and he is soon released and being fed a generous breakfast by the Sheriff. This feels like acceptance to James, or as close as he is likely to come to it. When he discovers that a parcel of land is up for sale in a distant part of the district, he buys it and brings his family to settle.

Young Clayton arrives with his parents, grandparents and brothers, and is deeply involved in the work that needs to be done, turning the rotting old house into a habitable dwelling and clearing a multitude of angry, nesting creatures out of the barn. He makes friends with the reckless tearabout, June, and with a hermit living in the woods; Judah has been in the war and seen the kind of atrocities that prevent him from being around people again. Clayton is also aware of the conflict that continues to swirl about his family. His parents have been shown friendship too, from a bunch of local immigrants. But there are white men in town who will stop at nothing to prevent the blacks from gaining a toehold on the land they believe they own through right of birth. And those men have the tools of destruction in their command – the two brothers beaten up by James on his first visit to town turn out to be relatives of the former owner of James’ land, and they are happy to use any means available to seize it back from him.

Having watched the loving McGhee clan tend with such care and so much hard work to their property, having seen them withstand the ordinary barbs of misunderstanding and fight to get their heads above poverty, the reader feels the full force of outrage that this latest threat provokes. You just can’t help but cheer them on. But this isn’t the only menace to their simple desire for a good life. When Clayton is a grown man with a family of his own, and the farm is a well-run and organised place, the threats against his kind have also become better organised in the form of the Klu Klux Klan. History will repeat itself, in ways both predictable and surprising.

This is a novel steeped in rich descriptions of the land and meticulous accounts of 19th century methods of farming, land registry, building houses and getting drunk. It’s a novel that has one eye out for its own mythology (‘The Middle West was like the middle ages,’ one-character muses. ‘It had been of necessity invented by the East… as a more primitive place, mired in religion and habitually violent, so that bankers in New York and newspapermen in Boston and Baltimore would have something to define themselves against.’). But it also remains astute to the particular circumstances fostering human nature at this point in time. In a scene where the priest watches young boys at play, playfulness descends gradually into brutality:

‘They would jockey, testing the other’s seriousness, to gauge whether it was to be a test of resolve or something more: honor, a buried hurt, the compelling inner voice of a drunk father or a mad uncle, and sometimes that rare frightening occurrence of the love of the fight, the taste of blood in the mouth and the sheer joy of giving way to the deepest instinct.’

As small boys grow, so do nations. The emotional tides that tug at children in play are no different from those that can do real damage to peace among adults who want to assert their own power and superiority. You have to manage difference and make it work for you; one ruthless entrepreneur tells another businessman. Racial oppression is the very basis of that form of social management. But for all that this is a fierce book, one that sets out its injustices in stark and uncompromising ways, it has a tender heart. If you really like edge in your novels, this one may be too kind for you. I was glad of it; it felt like a grown-up version of beloved old tales featuring houses on the prairie written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which characters you like and admire fight hard for the best values: integrity, safety, justice. I found it vivid and compelling.

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Bradley Greenburg, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed (Sandstone Press, 2014), 450 pages.

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