ONCE TWO HEROES

Calvin Baker, Author
Calvin Baker, Author . Viking $23.95 (275p) ISBN 978-0-670-03164-1
Reviewed on: 12/23/2002
Release date: 01/01/2003
Hardcover - 397 pages - 978-0-7862-5463-7
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-14-200382-4
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The specter of racism hangs ominously over this intelligent, harrowing novel of death, loyalty and revenge. In 1940, Mather Rose, a young African-American raised in Paris, returns to his extended family in California, where he marries and starts a family. With France under siege, his parents attempt to flee to America but are killed en route, prompting Mather to enlist in the army. He rises to the rank of sergeant and comes home a decorated war hero. Because of his race, however, he is denied the Medal of Honor he is due, so he travels to Washington in hopes of collecting it. As he is driving back to L.A. through Mississippi on Thanksgiving eve, a confrontation with racist Nathan Hampton ends in the white man's death. Meanwhile, Nathan's brother, Lewis, has also recently returned home from the war, winding up in an uneasy marriage to the daughter of a wealthy New Orleans businessman. An otherwise tolerant and reasonable man, when Lewis learns of his brother's death he vows revenge on Mather. Baker (Naming the New World) takes many risks, some of which prove more successful than others. He ingeniously divides the novel in two, devoting the first half to Mather and the second to Lewis, while Nathan's death is described in a prologue, giving the nightmarish ending an even greater sense of inevitability. Although the pacing is uneven and several major plot points are either elided or glossed over, there is no denying the force and import of Baker's story or the elegance of his craft. (Jan. 27)

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