Thursday, March 7, 2013

Attica Locke, Did you Diss Southwest Florida?

Attica LockeJust ten days until another Southwest Florida Reading Festival A year of letter writing, invitations, tweets and Facebook contacts and now my co-workers are frazzled and excited, we're down to the wire, publicity is out and guess what? Attica Locke, who accepted our invitation months ago, has decided not to come! Why am I bothered by this? Because I lobbied the author selection committee for her appearance. Yes, after reading her debut novel, Black Water Rising, and then reading Dennis Lehane's glowing recommendation of her latest book, The Cutting Season, I thought she'd be a great fit for the festival and the perfect writer to share the stage with Joy Castro.

I'm sorry for our public but more than that, I'm sorry for her. Perhaps she doesn't realize what a fantastic, family event our festival is and how many years Lee County has been perfecting this one day literary event. I'll never forget the evening that Jeffery Deaver said he turned down Virginia's Festival of the Book because he heard that ours was the place to get up close and personal with fans. We LOVED that man!

So, of course, I read The Cutting Season in hopes of talking about it with Ms. Locke. My initial impression was that readers might not hang with her as the novel begins soooo slowly. Perhaps in an effort to arouse that sleepy, southern atmosphere of a plantation in Louisiana? Belle Vie is the ironic moniker given to the property where Caren Gray and her family have lived and worked for many generations. But Belle Vie, or Beautiful Life, certainly had a different meaning to her forebears, formerly enslaved on this plantation, and even after emancipation, working in menial positions for the Clancy family.

Caren, an events planner and a single mom, eschewed her law studies at Tulane, moving back to Belle Vie to help her mother and to become the in-charge person, hosting weddings, parties, and the most difficult thing of all, the re-enactments of slave life "back in the day," replete with actors dressed in 1860's garb. It's a terribly uncomfortable reminder of the insensitivity of  landowners who would have young, black college students earning their money by playing happy slaves on a plantation. It's rather shocking that it takes Caren, a strong black woman herself, so long to get it.

Locke gives readers a rather flimsy murder mystery involving a cane worker found with her throat slashed in the sugar fields that abut the plantation. The young woman is an immigrant, here without papers, employed by a man from a big sugar company with a reputation for mistreating its employees. Since the workers are undocumented, who, they wonder would care? But when one of Caren's young employees is charged with the crime and shuttled off to jail, the litigator in her rises up and she begins investigating on her own.

This is when one simply has to suspend disbelief and go with the flow. Caren takes such foolish chances for a woman who once excelled in law school. Even I know better than to wash away blood evidence from clothing in my own sink. Hasn't CSI taught us anything?
To keep us involved, Locke brings in an old love interest, Eric, the father of Caren's daughter, along with an interesting newspaper man out of New Orleans who has the potential to be the new man in Caren's life.

Really, this isn't sour grapes. The novel just doesn't have enough suspense to work as a mystery but it did interest me as a historical look at the old plantation system and the way in which freemen could be intimidated or coerced into giving up property rights to land they worked for decades. Attica Locke is also a screen writer and I'm wondering if that affects the way she writes her novels. Come to think of it, I could easily see The Cutting Season coming out of Hollywood with an all-star cast. Maybe you should wait for the movie.

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