This week’s New Title Tuesday pick, Tomb of the Unknown Racist by Blanche Boyd, does not linger long on description or dialogue. Nonetheless, the author paints finely detailed and emotionally propulsive scenes that reflect the dizzying contradictions circling the protagonist, Ellen Burns.
Boyd’s first novel in twenty years continues the story of her compelling and edgy protagonist Ellen Burns. When Tomb of the Unknown Racist opens in 1999, Ellen—now sober, haunted by her activist past, her failed relationships, the world at large—is peacefully taking care of her demented mother in South Carolina. Ellen’s brother Royce was a celebrated novelist who, a decade earlier, saw his work adopted by racists and fell under the sway of white supremacy. Ellen thought him dead from a botched FBI raid on his compound. But when his estranged daughter turns up on the news, claiming he might be responsible for kidnapping her two mixed-race children, Ellen travels to New Mexico to help her newfound niece. The book chronicles Ellen’s search for Royce, her descent into the dark abyss of the burgeoning race war of our country, and the confrontation that occurs when she learns the truth about her family’s past.
Blanche McCrary Boyd (born 1945) is an American novelist, journalist, essayist, and professor. She is the author of five novels and a collection of autobiographical journalism, including TERMINAL VELOCITY (1997), although the three novels function independently. Boyd’s essays and reporting have appeared in venues such as the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Ms, Vanity Fair, and Village Voice. Boyd has received are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a South Carolina Arts Commission Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University.
Ellen may be a recovering addict, but she is not an unreliable narrator like so many other contemporary protagonists. She tells all with a droll fervor. For example, Chapter 3 begins with Ellen’s lamentation: “My brother, my brother, my brother. What can an aging lesbian outlaw do if her brother is a white terrorist and he might still be alive?” It has a tinge of humor, but the context is missing children and Ellen’s attempt to provide support to her niece, the mother, she hasn’t seen since the niece was a baby.
Racism is a brittle topic in the US today and in Tomb of the Unknown Racist Boyd lummoxes through the landmines without hesitation. Early in the novel, the husband of her brother’s ex-wife, a Vietnamese-American, takes her to task:
“Only four generations in this country, and already you are a dangerous family.”
“My brother is dangerous. I’m just obnoxious and well-meaning.”
“I suspect you are nearly as dangerous as he.”
“How?” I asked genuinely interested. “Because all white people are dangerous?”
“If you understand that, then you know it’s true. But, no, that is not what I mean. You are meddling in our affairs, Miss Burns. You bring your innocence, Miss Burns. My wife values it in you more than she wishes to…. Here is the mistake you are making: You may be innocent, but your blood is not. Blood has its own demands. An acorn cannot become a pine tree, no matter how good the quality of the soil.”
Kirkus Reviews described the book best: “Unexpectedly light, even chatty, given the subject matter—white supremacy, unspeakable violence, American extremism—the novel is a family drama with all the flourishes of a thriller. Discombobulating—in a good way.”
Even though Tomb of the Unknown Racist is about distasteful and uncomfortable realities, it is an intriguing and engrossing book.
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Boyd:
Terminal Velocity – How a Southern lady became a hippie. After discovering she is lesbian, Ellen Sommers divorces her husband, quits her job and follows her new love to a commune in California. From there it is downhill all the way, drugs, alcohol, the company of bomb throwers, bisexual love, on the run from police and a mental asylum. A look at the radicalism of the 1970s by the author of The Revolution of Little Girls.
You might also enjoy:
The Underground Railroad : a novel by Colson Whitehead – Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
March by Geraldine Brooks – Brooks turns her talents to exploring the devastation and moral complexities of the Civil War through her brilliantly imagined tale of Mr. March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Mr. March, Brooks has created a conflicted and deeply sensitive man, a father who is struggling to reconcile duty to his fellow man with duty to his family against the backdrop of one of the most grim periods in American history. October 21, 1861. March, an army chaplain, has just survived a brush with death as his unit crossed the Potomac and experienced the small but terrible battle of Ball’s Bluff. But when he sits down to write his daily missive to his beloved wife, Marmee, he does not talk of the death and destruction around him, but of clouds “emboss[ing] the sky,” his longing for home, and how he misses his four beautiful daughters. “I never promised I would write the truth,” he admits, if only to himself. When he first enlisted, March was an idealistic man. He knew, above all else, that fighting this war for the Union cause was right and just. But he had not expected he would begin a journey through hell on earth, where the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, were too often blurred.