“Please, no, let me remain in my carefully constructed cocoon of Not-Knowing. Let me keep my untarnished idol.”
-Greg Iles, in the prologue to Natchez Burning
Stories have incredible power of truth, and break mindsets which hold the floodwaters of change. Harriet Beecher Stowe galvanized the abolitionist movement with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George Orwell warned us of the dangers of nationalism with 1984, and Solzhenitsyn challenged Soviet power with the narrative of The Gulag Archipelago. Greg Iles draws on experience in the American South to weave a gripping critique in his must-read thriller, Natchez Burning. This was my first exposure to Iles’ writing, but not the first to the contradictions and twisted legacies of the South.
Iles, more than any other account I have read so far, clothes historical experiences, memories and debates around his powerful characters in Natchez Burning. Set in his hometown of Natchez, MS, high on a bluff above the Old Man River, the novel runs from the marbled halls of plantation mansions to dark bayous where lynchings occur with impunity. The antebellum South of Scarlett O’Hara mingles freely with night rides of the Ku Klux Klan, and crosses the soulful chords of Mississippi folk blues. The novel fiercely questions white Southern pride as it uncovers its hidden sins, yet in the end leaves the legacy of the South still standing strong.
The comparisons by reviewers to Faulkner are not misplaced. Like the tortured mixed-race character Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August, Iles’ characters bear secret burdens and racial hatreds which run deep into the Mississippi backwoods. Inspired (if you can permit the word) by the Mississippi Burning civil rights murders of 1964, Natchez Burning makes a complex history a heart-thumping literary experience.
At the heart of the novel is a struggle over memory: white mayor of Natchez Penn Cage must resolve an unsettling question about his the past when a black nurse named Viola Turner returns to Natchez from Chicago right before her death from lung cancer. Penn’s father, Dr. Tom Cage, worked with Viola during the peak of civil rights furor in Mississippi in the 1960s when Viola’s brother Jimmy was killed by a radical fringe of the KKK called the Double Eagles. As Penn investigates Viola’s death, he inevitably stumbles upon the details of Jimmy’s murder and the past begins to unravel.
In question is the character of Dr. Tom Cage. What role did this pillar of the community play in the death of Viola Turner? How could he mingle with members of the KKK and civil rights foot soldiers almost simultaneously and somehow maintain his neutrality? When Viola’s son Lincoln Turner arrives on the scene in Natchez after his mother’s death, he presents some uncomfortable questions to Dr. Cage. Dr. Cage is forced to grapple with his teetering reputation and keep up the aegis he nurtured over his family for decades.
Meanwhile, Penn Cage must maintain an appearance of political correctness while defending his father from questioning. Penn believes his father is a scapegoat for the Double Eagles, who in 2005- the setting of the book – are still alive and determined to conceal all evidence of their heinous past. To pry open the vise grip of Southern history, Penn turns to the crusading journalist Henry Sexton who writes across the river in Louisiana. The two men are unlikely and hesitant allies, as Henry wants justice for civil rights murders of the past and Penn wants protection for his father in the present.
Yet no matter how uneasy the two idealists are together, they have to muster a defense against the Machiavellian tactics of their opponents: a series of front-line bounty hunters, corrupt officials, mafia connections and sharpshooting assassins who have passed on the legacy of the KKK to a more sinister and subtle operation in the present-day Deep South. A tremendous struggle of ideas comes as Cage and Sexton race to expose the truth in an incredible climax.
Does power come from speaking truth to oppressors and standing on principle? Or does power come from fighting tooth-and-nail for your life from the very bottom of the social ladder, disparaging the noblesse oblige of the wealthy and the desperation of the oppressed along the way? Does power come from protecting the honor and reputation of your family, or from your ability to control others to preserve your economic position? These central debates are viciously tangible in Natchez Burning, as the self-made Social-Darwinist villain enlists violent, racist men to confront the truth-seekers at the cost of many lives.
Even if it’s good literature, I firmly believe Greg Iles thriller and remaining two parts in the trilogy are also good education in the fault lines of race in America. Millennials have bought into the “race-blind” narrative we have created to deny the painful legacy of Jim Crow and oppression. Maybe this story can be one step from being a passive bystander to honor and freedom that comes from truth.