"The past is never dead. It's not even past," William Faulkner wrote in what may be his most famous lines. He was talking particularly about the South, and if you would like an example of how right he was, read Janis Owens' American Ghost.
This compelling novel begins as a love story between a lonely small-town teenager and a dashing (in a scholarly-nerd sort of way) stranger. But it turns into both a thrilling, multilayered mystery and a fearless look at the tragic delusions of American racism.
The small town in question is Hendrix, a hard-luck hamlet in Florida's Panhandle. The lonely teenager is Jolie Hoyt, motherless daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who dotes upon her but has raised her to be a modest and obedient "church girl" — unlike her hordes of hell-raising male cousins.
But Jolie is coming of age and turning into a beauty in the 1990s, and such old-school strictures don't suit her independent temperament much (although she dotes upon her "Deddy," too). She gets plenty of encouragement to misbehave from her best friend, Lena, a military brat who is as gregarious and flirty as Jolie is terse and shy.
Lena takes it upon herself to introduce her friend to Sam Lense, a graduate student working on a project on Florida Indians — the ostensible reason being Jolie's heritage. Her people may include some Creek Indians, she tells him. Or maybe they're something called Little Black Dutch — which, surprisingly, he knows all about. He also knows about Melungeons and Mestees and a lot of other arcane groups of people whose origins are lost in the mists of American history. What they have in common is that they are neither "pure white" nor black but may be descended in part from Gypsies or Cherokees, Sephardic Jews or Turks or Africans, depending on who's telling the story. The only thing certain is their marginalized status — Jolie is sharply aware that if she doesn't get out of Hendrix, she has a dreary future ahead.
Sam is interested in her heritage (and as a Jew knows something about marginalization and prejudice). But he is also bowled over by Jolie herself, and soon they are lovers. He's keeping a secret from her, though. On their first meeting, he pointed out to Jolie and Lena the giant oak tree on the square with a missing limb — sawed off to try to erase the memory of a notorious lynching six decades before. In 1938, a local black man named Henry Kite robbed the general store and shot the shopkeeper dead before his wife and child. When the sheriff came, Kite killed him, too. A white mob killed not only Kite but his mother, his two uncles, his sister and her husband — the sister a teenager about to bear her first child. It was one of the last of the "spectacle lynchings," which drew crowds of thousands to a macabre carnival of death. (Owens based the story on the historical lynching of Claude Neale in 1934 in Marianna, which drew such a crowd it was covered in national news.)
Sam has a more than scholarly interest in the Kite lynching: He's a descendant of that shopkeeper. But he will quickly find out how perilous it is to dig into buried history.
Despite years of separation, neither he nor Jolie can give up looking for the truth — even though for Jolie that search may lead to her own family. Years later, events will come to a crisis, which Owens writes about with suspenseful skill. And when Jolie finally hears an account of the lynchings from an eyewitness, it is a harrowing and heartbreaking scene.
Owens, a Panhandle native, treats her characters with a respect and understanding that's refreshing in a time when Southerners don't always get either. It's not that Owens excuses the unspeakable — it's just that she paints a portrait, not a cartoon.