In his latest novel, “The Vain Conversation,” Georgia author Anthony Grooms focuses on the question of redemption.
How does America redeem itself from racial crimes?
What does a fully redeemed United States look like?
“Does it look like it does today?” asked Grooms, a professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University. “I don’t think so. I don’t think we’ve actually dealt with the question of racial violence. It’s been swept under the rug.”
In a divided nation, perhaps the timing of the release of his latest book couldn’t be better, although Grooms didn’t plan it that way. It’s likely to resonate with readers who even remotely follow what is happening across the United States.
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“If I had my way, it would have been published 10 years ago,” he said.
He thinks the nation is haunted by the racial injustices that happened decades ago and continue today when a young woman is run down and killed while protesting at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., and when nine black members of a Bible study group are murdered by a lone white gunman bent on starting a race war.
Grooms, author of “Bombingham” and “Trouble No More,” has written a gripping and disturbing book that is loosely based on the brutal killings of two African-American couples — Roger and Dorothy Malcom, and George and Mae Murray Dorsey — in 1946 at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County. An investigation found that members of the mob likely included the Ku Klux Klan.
He tells the story of a young white boy named Lonnie Henson, who witnesses the horrific murder of two black couples in rural Georgia at the end of World War II. The book draws readers into the lives of Bertrand Johnson, one of the victims who had befriended Lonnie’s father during the war; Noland Jacks, an alleged member of the mob; and Vernon Venable, the wealthy white businessman.
Burdened by feelings of guilt, Lonnie travels the world to find peace and meaning from a night years ago that left a mark on his soul.
“We seem to think that redemption always has a happy ending,” he said. “Not necessarily.”
Grooms points to the popular book and film “The Help.”
In the end, the main character, played by actress Emma Stone, leaves her hometown for a journalism job in New York.
“People think things are righted,” he said. However, the black women who are left behind “are still living with the profound damage that was done by the oppression.”
Can that damage ever be repaired?
In the preface, he quotes H.L. Mencken: “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.”
“Redemption is not an easy process,” Grooms said. “It means that people have to first reckon with the atrocities of the past.”
Racial violence is a tradition of sin that is still being passed along, Grooms believes.
He’s optimistic, though, that this nation can move forward.
“The changes I’ve witnessed are really quite remarkable,” Grooms said. “You have to keep pressing.”
In a quiet way, perhaps, people are reaching across the great divides in this nation. Conversations are happening.
That doesn’t mean people have to walk away with the same point of view, but perhaps they will reach a place of tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. “We don’t have to kill each other over differences.”
“The legacy of race crimes in our society does, in some way, affect everybody,” he said.
Grooms will be part of a panel called “Understanding Our Painful Past” from 5:30-6:15 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, at Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary as part of the AJC Decatur Book Festival.
AJC Decatur Book Festival. Aug. 31-Sept. 2. Free. Various venues. decaturbookfestival.com.
Keynote: Kenny Leon. 8 p.m. Aug. 31. Sold out. Schwartz Center at Emory University, 1700 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta.
Kidnote: Harry Potter celebration. 5 p.m. Aug. 31. Free but ticket required. Presser Hall at Agnes Scott College, 141 E. College Ave., Decatur.
Street Festival: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 1, noon-6 p.m. Sept. 2, downtown Decatur.