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McFarland is a novelist of quiet eloquence (Singing Boy ; The Music Room ) whose powers of careful observation and refusal to venture into melodrama are particularly evident in his latest, a picture of that fateful summer of 1959 when Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its public schools rather than open them by court order to black children. The story is told through the eyes of 10-year-old Benjamin Rome, son of a segregationist chicken farmer, whose best friend is Burghardt, a bright black youngster who shares his dreary farm chores. It is told through Benjamin's eyes, but not in his voice; McFarland does not attempt any of the kind of ventriloquism so popular these days, but writes as an intelligent adult seeing with the limited vision of a boy Ben's age as his mother and father squabble; his older sister, Lainie, goes off for a wonderfully described abortion; and older brother Al tries to stay on the sidelines in the racial battle shaping up. McFarland has introduced some of the real local characters of the time into his story, but just as convincing is Ben's grandfather Daddy Cary, presented in a remarkable portrait of elderly and self-indulgent Southern delinquency. The foreground of this fine and affecting novel is alive with the sights and sounds of a sweltering Virginia summer, but it is the author's real achievement to make it simultaneously clear that in the barely perceived background a world is turning upside down. (May 5)
Forecast: McFarland already has an admiring following, which should relish his quietly thoughtful reconstruction of a momentous time now 45 years in the past. Author tour.
Release date: 05/01/2004