John McMillan was only eight years old when his mother died and he was ripped, without warning, from his sheltered world of books and gentility. Now on his aunt’s run-down tenant farm in southern Alabama, abused by his alcoholic uncle, and completely bereft, John longs for escape–his only hope for survival. He’s about to get his wish in a way no one could ever predict….A twist of fate will bring John to the Bend, a black settlement that has become a refuge for outcasts, where he’ll join Tuway, a black man who helps others leave the South and find a new life in Chicago. But neither will be ready for the brutal confrontation about to change their lives, challenge the prejudice of an era, inspire the courage of a people, and most of all, touchingly reveal the secrets of one boy’s heart.
Out of the Night That Covers Me takes place a decade before the civil rights movement, but the spirit of the coming upheaval hangs over its pages as heavily as the humidity of an Alabama summer. Pat Cunningham Devoto’s second novel revolves around two characters: John McMillan, a precocious, sheltered 8-year-old sent to live with poor relations after his mother’s death, and Tuway, an African American with a foot in both the black and white worlds. Their stories intersect when the powerful Judge Vance takes an interest in John. He brings the boy to work at the Planters and Merchants Bank of Lower Peach Tree, where the mysteriously disfigured Tuway acts as his assistant. The judge, we soon learn, is no judge at all. Instead, his title is an allusion to his economic omnipotence: “He the one says if you get a crop loan or not. Round here, if you gets a crop loan, you can make it, and if you don’t, you might just as well go on off down the road.” A suspiciously large number of black families have done just that, defaulting on debts and fleeing Alabama’s cotton fields for the factories of Chicago. But who provides the money and means for their flight? As John learns more about the financial and political intrigues of Lower Peach Tree, he dreams of making his own escape from his abusive new family. The events that follow forge an unlikely alliance between the silent, wounded black man and the equally wounded orphan–and test their courage in unexpected ways. As skillfully as Devoto evokes time and place, her novel is not without flaws. John’s voice, for example, tends toward the irritatingly precious, and the writing sometimes falls flat. Yet the author movingly portrays the ways poverty can both pinch lives into meanness (witness the case of John’s alcoholic Uncle Luther) and challenge people to face their problems together, as in the all-black community known as the Bend. If this juxtaposition of violence and cooperation seems a little, well, black and white, that’s part of the book’s charm; its moral sureties belong to a time when good and evil were as easy to distinguish in life as they are in fiction. –Chloe Byrne
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