Ross Howell Jr.’s harrowing ‘Forsaken’ blends fact and fiction

In the only existing photo of Virginia “Virgie” Christian, a mug shot taken during her arrest for the murder of her abusive employer in the spring of 1912, she gazes longingly into the camera, her expression vulnerable and entreating, as if hoping the truth of her story will one day be told. She was 16 years old, black, and soon to be the first and only female juvenile to die in Virginia’s electric chair.

Her mournful face graces the cover of “Forsaken,” Ross Howell Jr.’s unforgettable debut novel that blends fiction with real-life court records, letters, newspaper stories and personal accounts to recreate the events of the most sensational murder trial of the day.

Charlie Mears, the rookie reporter assigned to cover the case, runs headlong into a story much bigger and more far-reaching than Christian’s crime: the stranglehold of Hampton, Va.’s oppressive Jim Crow laws, reinforced by the segregationist policies of newly elected president Woodrow Wilson.

“I like to believe I’m telling the truth,” says Mears. But when he comes across a poisonous network determined that no African American in Hampton will ever get a fair trial, he learns that “the truth hides somewhere in the shadows of what happens.”

An 18-year-old orphan with a troubled past, Mears’ closest relationship has been with a college friend who committed suicide. His religious upbringing sets him apart from the other newsmen, who tease him for his piety and inexperience. Like many a young loner, he’s drawn to others weaker than himself, and his sympathy for the underdog — he befriends Virgie, bringing her chocolate and picture books — extends to the victim’s orphaned daughters, 13-year-old Harriet and 8-year-old Sadie, as well as an abused pit bull he rescues and tames.

Howell portrays Virgie as a naive, illiterate girl who has no idea that a violent fight with her abusive elderly employer left the woman dead, let alone that there will be consequences. “You see my daddy,” she tells Mears during his first visit, “you tell him come fetch me.” Later, forlorn but surprisingly resilient and resigned to her fate, she chides Mears for his hopeful outlook: “For an educated white boy, you don’t know much.”

But it’s chiefly through Mears’ idealistic eyes that Howell channels the events that have confined Virgie to a jail cell: the network of white male leaders and politicians impatient to see justice served, the professed concern with potential racial violence that justifies a speedy trial, the history of Hampton’s intolerance and bigotry, and the sympathetic advocates who come to Virgie’s aid only to meet with the adamant resistance of William Mann, “the last Confederate veteran to serve as governor.”

A Charleston, S.C., native, Howell captures the atmosphere of early 20th-century Hampton, from courthouse to countryside, as vividly as he does its seething, racial inequities. He has a keen eye for period details: Sitting on the iron steps to his rented room, Mears watches as “miller moths spun about the gaslight,” and “the blue spark of the last trolley lit the new leaves on the limbs hanging over the line.” His boardinghouse meals are mouth-wateringly faithful to Southern cooking of the era: Of a basket of ham biscuits, Mears notes that the cook “sprinkled a little brown sugar and black peppercorns on her ham when she fried it.”

Mears’ interviews with the historical figures in Christian’s trial bring them to life just as believably, capturing their lingering memories of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction and its aftermath. George W. Fields, Virgie’s black lawyer and a former slave, recalls brutal beatings from antebellum days that underscore the racial hatred still gripping the town, and gives a detailed account of his family’s liberation by Union troops in 1863. The town coroner draws on his memory of a doomed interracial marriage to warn Mears about making enemies of “men in high places” — especially an influential champion of the new science of eugenics and its usefulness in purifying the races.

Convicted of first-degree murder within 30 minutes by a jury of her “peers” — 12 white men — Virgie goes to her death despite significant protests on her behalf: “letters from colored and white politicians, schoolteachers, businessmen, suffragettes, children’s welfare groups, pastors, temperance society leaders, Chicago newspaper editors,” including a plea from the head of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Her execution leaves Mears as her proxy, enduring the inevitable vigilantism in store for Virgie had she been granted her rights. After losing his job at the white newspaper and moving to Norfolk to join an all-black paper, Mears can finally write without oversight about the miscarriage of justice in the case of Virginia Christian — though not without repercussions.

From there on, “Forsaken” tracks Mears’ fate as the target of local bigots and Klan members intent on silencing his public outcry, an invisible group of vengeful citizens that includes the well-connected, ruthless brother of the murdered woman. Warnings come in the form of anonymous notes, burned crosses and, finally, a grisly, surrealistic echo of the plight of Charlie’s college friend.

A story unearthed from old newspapers, a searching look at the facts, eloquent testimony and behind-the-scenes evidence: “Forsaken” is the fair trial Virginia Christian never had, in which the innocent are justly treated, the guilty finally charged. The last question we the jury are asked to consider, in light of today’s murderous headlines, is whether the old racial hatred and oppression have returned, hidden in the same shadows Mears noted over a hundred years ago.

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