Why should we study Black history?
Because it’s not history.
That’s what Meghan McKenzie, one of the two main characters in Cheryl Head’s engrossing new novel, “Time’s Undoing,” discovers. In 2019, Meghan is an ambitious young reporter at the Detroit Free Press. She’s been spending most of her time covering the Black Lives Matter movement.
After she covers yet another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, she resolves to try to find out the truth behind another such death, the killing in 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, of a Black carpenter named Robert Harrington.
Meghan has heard whispers about that killing all her life. Harrington was her great-grandfather. Her grandmother, now 92, was a toddler when he died, and she doesn’t even know where — or whether — his body was buried. He was shot by a police officer, the story goes, but no one knows why.
So Meghan talks her editors into sending her to Birmingham for a few weeks, both to cover Black Lives Matter activities there and to try to unearth the details of her ancestor’s death.
Meghan narrates about half of the book’s chapters; the rest, set in 1929, are narrated by Robert Harrington. Not yet 30, he’s a skilled carpenter who lives in St. Petersburg with his family, until his quick temper gets him into trouble.
When he’s offered a job at good pay to work on a millionaire’s mansion in Birmingham, it seems like the right time to take it. Off he goes, driving the car that is his pride and joy, a Franklin Victoria — a car so expensive some white people in the Jim Crow South are very unhappy to see a Black man driving it.
After he’s settled in his job, Robert returns for his other sources of pride and joy: his wife, Anna Kate, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mae. The beautiful Anna Kate is pregnant with their second child, and Robert thinks of her as another marker of his success: “a light-bright-damn-near-white wife.”
And, like his car, his wife can innocently bring down the wrath of racist whites on the dark-skinned Robert when they assume she’s white. When he drives her from St. Petersburg to Birmingham in the Franklin, she rides in the back seat so it looks like he’s her chauffeur.
They settle into a promising life in Birmingham, but it doesn’t last long.
One of the few tangible clues Meghan has about her great-grandfather’s fate is a newspaper clipping from the then-St. Petersburg Times, a very brief mention of the death in Birmingham of a Black man from St. Pete.
When she arrives in Alabama, she has her work cut out for her, and she gets to it. One of the strengths of “Time’s Undoing” is Head’s convincing portrayal of what research and investigation entail: Meghan reads countless crumbling old documents, scans hours of digital records, interviews some Black people who are fearful and some white people who are angry.
She also finds allies in a goth-girl librarian named Kristen Gleason; the local Black Lives Matter leader, Monique Hendricks; and a liaison from the mayor’s office, the charming Darius Curren.
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Head paints a vibrant picture of present-day Birmingham (and takes her characters out to meals in so many real-life restaurants that reading about them kept me hungry). She also brings rich detail to the everyday lives of her characters in 1929.
The story is one close to Head’s heart. It’s based on the life and death of her own grandfather, who like his namesake in “Time’s Undoing” moved from St. Petersburg to Birmingham in 1929 and was shot to death by a police officer.
The book’s fictional plot weaves Robert’s story through Meghan’s investigation skillfully, often moving from a piece of evidence found in 2019 to the event in 1929 it’s tied to. Head is the author of the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries series, and her crime fiction chops give this stand-alone novel its suspenseful structure.
Trying to find out what happened 90 years ago plunges Meghan into unexpected connections and reverberations in the present. Her quest puts her into danger from the same kind of people, and the same system, that ended her great-grandfather’s life.
“Time’s Undoing” is an absorbing mystery and a moving lesson in Black history as it plays out in the lives of families through generations.
By Cheryl A. Head
Dutton, 348 pages, $28
Meet the author
Cheryl A. Head will be in conversation about “Time’s Undoing” with Tampa author Sheree L. Greer at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.