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Review: Any Where You Run, by Wanda M. Morris
Morrow, 2022. 382 pp. $29

Neshoba County, Mississippi, is in upheaval in summer 1964. Three civil-rights activists have been murdered, and pressure on the federal government gets the FBI involved, because local law enforcement takes no interest. But the infamous case concerning James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman is merely background story here, a gauge by which to measure Neshoba County at that time.

Violet and Marigold Richards don’t need to read the newspapers to know what it means to be Black. Each sister runs afoul of a man, the law, or both. A white man sexually assaults Violet, who shoots him dead. That sends her fleeing from Jackson to Chillicothe, Georgia, a small town where she has kin, worrying that any second, the local police will trace her to the shooting. (Why they haven’t already is never explained.)

Meanwhile, Marigold, the supposedly smarter sister, the one good in school—there’s much sibling rival over family perceptions—makes the mistake of her life. Working for the Mississippi Summer Project, trying to help Blacks register to vote, she has an affair with a handsome lawyer from Harlem. When Marigold tells him she’s pregnant, he splits. And when Violet splits too, without having told her where she’s gone, Marigold wonders what to do next.

FBI missing-persons poster showing Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, June 1964 (courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Any Where You Run offers a compelling story that will keep you turning the pages. It’s not just that each Richards sister has reasons to run; they have persistent pursuers with varied motives for catching up to them. Bad choices multiply, and circumstances conspire against them, usually because bigotry has narrowed the number of possible solutions down to zero. “No—and furthermore” lives here, in other words, and Morris has no qualms about punishing her characters.

I also like the sense of time and place. The author excels at portraying everyday situations in which a white person can expect help, respect, or just simple acknowledgment, whereas a Black person knows she can only hope to escape punishment for an imaginary offense. A Black woman may not try on a wedding dress; it’s take it or leave it, and be quick. A Black person mustn’t look a white person in the eye. And so on. As Violet recalls of her childhood:

We weren’t blind. We knew that the books we used in school didn’t look like the ones the white kids used. We knew we couldn’t use the local libraries or swimming pools like the white kids. How do you tell a child that life will be better for them, when everything in the world told them something different? I had to force my mind to stop thinking on those things because they always took me to a bad place.

However, those bad places, and how the characters react to them (or don’t) hold this novel back, I think. The sisters’ plight and sufferings make you want to find out what happens to them, but the next “no—and furthermore” seldom evokes deep reflection or emotional reckoning. Instead, Violet and Marigold react in set, predictable, logical ways, bouncing between two unpleasant alternatives, too often expressed in rhetorical questions (“How could I . . . .?), which feels like lip service rather than grappling.

For instance, I kept wanting Violet to wrestle with the sexual assault and the murder she commits in revenge. But the small extent to which she dwells on them seems to suggest a plot point—why she’s on the run—not traumatic events.

Rather, it’s on to the next crisis, until the end, when violence erupts everywhere, much of it in melodrama, yet the survivors appear to dig themselves out from under—no, not by snapping their fingers, but still without the turmoil you might expect.

Too many characters here are all good or all bad, especially the men, who are either saints or devils. With one male character, Morris presents a slightly more nuanced picture, trying to show how the racist culture and power structure put poor whites at a disadvantage. But even he tips over the edge, partly because the triple murder of the activists influences the narrative.

Consequently, Any Where You Run stands or falls on the plot and setting alone. The writing, simple and direct, as with the passage quoted above, seldom gets in the way but never takes flight, either. Often reading like nonfiction with occasional, pithy folk sayings, the prose plays toward the action, and when it must take center stage, as with the emotional transitions, I wanted words I could hold onto.

To be fair, the tension never flags, and the story is often gut-wrenching. But the emotional impact could have gone much deeper. This might be one novel in which less—as in fewer twists, especially violent ones—might have counted for more.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.