Set in Norfolk in Tidewater Virginia in 1912, “Forsaken” is a Gothic volume of historical fiction by Ross Howell Jr.. Though set in Virginia, it owes much to Derryn Moten’s 1997 dissertation, “A gruesome warning to Black girls: The August 16, 1912 execution of Virginia Christian.”
Moten is a professor of history at Alabama State University. The author of “Forsaken” read Moten’s dissertation while attending a writers’ conference at the University of Iowa in 2011. Howell was so impressed with Moten’s work that he began research on the subject and this book is the result.
The story centers on the trial and execution of Virginia “Vergie” Christian, a 16-year-old illiterate black girl who killed her abusive employer, Ida Belote. Despite having excellent black attorneys, she was easily convicted by a jury of 12 white men. Gov. William H. Mann upheld their decision. He rejected all appeals and petitions for clemency and she was electrocuted, the only female juvenile executed in Virginia’s long history.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the South was in the firm grip of Jim Crow racism. Black defendants were either lynched or convicted in a rigged court of law if they were thought to have raped or murdered a white person.
Despite pious words about respect for law, it was a time for racial vengeance. Christian was a victim, but so are other people, black and white, who appear in this powerful novel. Not the least of these is the narrator of the story, 18-year-old Charlie Mears, a deeply religious young man who studied at the College of William & Mary before leaving to work as a reporter for a small paper in Hampton.
The book begins with his life as a reporter. Mears is an introspective young man who lost his best friend to suicide while at William & Mary. His friend was from an aristocratic family and was gay. Mears had gently refused his friend’s sexual advances, which led to his taking his own life.
Burdened with guilt, Mears did his job as a reporter as best he could, and was told to report on the murder of Mrs. Berlote. In doing so, he entered into the lives of black people and became convinced Christian was as much a victim as he was. As the story goes on, he gets to know several black people, from lawyers to laborers, and Mrs. Belote’s orphaned daughters, who had been sexually abused by their own uncle.
Eventually Mears runs afoul of white racists himself and realizes how pervasive racism is in the world he inhabits. He becomes caught up in the eugenics movement, which sought to castrate men thought to be a danger to white control of Southern society, often through state hospitals for the feeble minded. This movement was very powerful in Alabama, where Dr. W.D. Partlow, supported by doctors and Protestant leaders, sought to eliminate “the unfit.”
It was very easy to see a black man or woman as unfit, along with those who sought to protect them from mobs led by white elite who sought to clothe their actions and beliefs in noble-sounding language.
Eventually Mears is able, with help from friends both black and white, to escape the South with Mrs. Belote’s two youngest daughters. They survive, but leave behind a region riddled with hatred, racial violence and high-sounding phrases the elite leaders use to conceal the truth of what was going on. If this sounds familiar, it should, as the author thinks some of the same violence, duplicity and hypocrisy is still to be found in race relations in our region.
Finally, there is a copius use of dialect and the words “Negro” and “nigger” appear as they would certainly have then. The author assures us he meant no disrespect, but only wanted to paint an accurate picture. His honesty is refreshing.
This is a powerful book which owes much to research begun by ASU’s Professor Moten and to our own NewSouth Books. The reader will long remember this novel from which we all can learn about a painful part of our heritage. The author writes very well and so brings this important period in our history to life.
You do not have to be a historian to appreciate this novel. Indeed, NewSouth Books and Ross Howell Jr. have a best-seller on their hands in “Forsaken.”
Ross Howell Jr., “Forsaken” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, Alabama, 2016), ISBN 978-1-58838-317-4, pp. 304, $27.95.