1920s, Arkansas, book review, cotton country, dirt-poor town, historical atmosphere, historical fiction, Mary Elizabeth Pope, perversion of justice, political corruption, Prohibition, protecting characters, psychotic visions, racism, unscrupulous clergy, whistleblower
Review: The Gods of Green County, by Mary Elizabeth Pope
Blair, 2021. 240 pp. $26
One hot day in 1926, the sheriff shoots Buddy Harper to death in Paradise, Arkansas, and claims self-defense. Since the sheriff practically runs Green County, and since a raft of witnesses testifies that Buddy threatened him with a crowbar, acquittal seems certain. Nevertheless, the attorney the sheriff has hired to defend him, Leroy Harrison, nearly withdraws from the case. His client, though smoother than silk, seems utterly unscrupulous, and it’s suspicious how the witnesses’ statements tally so closely in wording.
However, Leroy keeps the case in the end. His wife has just had another miscarriage, the great pain of their lives together, and he can’t handle the turmoil that would surely result if he disappointed the sheriff. But there are compensations, for subsequently, Leroy’s elected judge. And that’s part of his problem, for his conscience tells him that’s wrong, especially when he sees how the sheriff wields power, in ways both petty and devastating.
Nobody suffers more than Coralee Wilkins (née Harper), who sees visions of her late brother on the street, her porch, and the grocery. To her husband, Earl’s, dismay, she becomes more religious as a means of coping. The preacher she chooses is a corrupt, money-grubbing type who encourages his congregants to handle poisonous snakes.
The symbolism here might be heavy-handed: the snake in Paradise. But Pope has re-created a dirt-poor cotton town, with its intricate links forged through lifelong relationships and resentments. The result is a terrific story, a moral tale about power, loyalties, mental disturbance, and corruption. Although I dislike her intended conclusion, she brings her decidedly imperfect folk to life, and it’s a loving portrait she portrays of a time and place gone by.
Told through three different voices — Leroy’s, Coralee’s, and Earl’s — the narrative opens with Coralee’s psychotic delusion:
Truth is, I always could see things. Not every little thing all the time, but the full flower inside the bud of a rose, the fire inside a new green leaf that wouldn’t show until fall, the old man inside the boy selling newspapers on the street. Sometimes I even knew the future. One summer when a hard frost killed the crops and everybody was hungry, I had a vision of Johnny Wilcox bringing us a wheelbarrow full of turnips, and sure enough, he showed up the next day. Another time, I saw Laverne Bishop take up a snake even though she’d never trusted the Lord enough to test her faith before, and the very next Sunday she did. Those times, Mama called me her little prophet. Most of the time she said it was Satan working through me.
Earl, who works for a pittance at a cotton gin, doesn’t know what to do, as Coralee’s illness progresses and her behavior endangers herself and others. He’s a good soul, the salt of the earth, and illiterate, as she is. It’s a poignant portrayal, and you feel for both of them. “No — and furthermore” propels the story, as every move the three narrators make backfires. This small town, where everyone’s known each other forever, has its staunch loyalties that help people get through but also its hatreds and suspicions.
However, the one hatred Paradise lacks is racial. No Black characters live or work here, apparently, nor do any of the three narrators even refer to Blacks. The omission, though it simplifies the storytelling and allows the focus to remain on the principals’ concerns, makes me wonder why Pope chose that approach. I hope it’s not to protect her characters, so they don’t seem “dislikable” — a cardinal sin in book publishing, these days.
Several crucial scenes take place in a bar, and that too tests belief — not in the latter part of the novel, which occurs twenty years and more after the shooting, but in 1926, when Prohibition ruled the land. Along the same lines, somehow World War II escapes notice or mention, which gives the impression that Paradise must be hermetically sealed.
Finally, the narrative takes a couple too many twists in its latter stages, not always believably. And I think Pope wants the reader to see Leroy, who can’t leave the shooting or the sheriff’s abuses of power alone, as the villain here. He’s a whistleblower who neglects his family, yes, and not all his reasons for pursuing his cause are altruistic. But should he really leave well enough alone? And as the only character who stands up to evil, he has my admiration — especially if the alternative is just to keep his head down and tend his own garden.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.