Fire in a Canebrake
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 Fire In A Canebrake 

A BookSense 76 pick for March/April 2003

"...Wexler's telling has all the elements of a horrific Southern mystery. What makes Fire in a Canebrake most compelling, however, is Wexler's detached sensibility. In effect, she reports the details of the lynching with surprisingly little sentimentality, an admirable accomplishment for a writer describing a 'murder so extreme that it would become an icon of postwar violence, a symbol of the chasm between the promise of democracy and the reality of life for black people in America in 1946.' ...As Fire in a Canebrake unfolds into what at first seems to be a satisfying whodunit, what Wexler actually proves (achingly) is how much the nation has lost in the absence of accurate accounts of the crime."

--, 1/29/03

"The title of Fire in a Canebrake comes from a white farmer's memory of what the shooting - more than 60 shots were fired - sounded like that day; when hollow river cane is ignited, it makes a noise like the pop of gunshots. The story Wexler tells possesses a similarly stark drama, re-creating the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that blanketed Walton County after the lynchings, as well as the horrors of the event itself...."

-- Boston Globe, 2/2/03

"The number of lynchings declined significantly during the 1940s, but one of the most infamous racial crimes of that decade was the execution-style murders of two young black couples, Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey, in Walton County, Ga., in 1946. Those four killings are the subject of Laura Wexler's thoroughly researched and superbly written Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America."

-- Los Angeles Times, 4/13/03

"Wexler tells the story like a woman knitting: She draws us along for a good distance, showing that events unfolded like this and like that, until the reader stands convinced.

No, says the author in a new chapter, let me show it to you from this angle because that witness was lying. She pulls out the yarn to the bare needles and begins again. Here is how it happened, according to a bystander. Again you follow the logic and see a pattern revealed; again you stand back in awe at her skill.

You are convinced.

But no, says the author, that bystander had a motive; let's listen to an onlooker who was a small boy at the time. Here is what he said in adulthood, in 1998, to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and his story remains the definitive one. She pulls out all the thread from her previous argument and wields the flashing needles again. So that's how it happened, thinks the reader. Now it is solved.

But wait, says Wexler, here is yet another witness, a man who was pistol-whipped and permanently injured by whites who suspected that he talked to the grand jury. And we begin again.

By the end of this gripping book, one understands: Where there was no justice in economics or in the practice of democracy, or in social life or in education, there could be no justice in criminal prosecution.

This is an outstanding work of narrative journalism, a book about murders and cover-ups that gleams with the plain beauty of truth-telling."

-- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/19/03

"Wexler is a thorough reporter who has enough faith in the facts to let them tell the story. In instances where no facts or witnesses exist to support what appear to be obvious conclusions, she admirably backs off and avoids undue speculation. The result is an accessible story that persuasively establishes a context in which unspeakable monstrosities are not only condoned but even encouraged..."

-- Washington Post, 1/21/03

"Wexler's portrayal of the four lynched sharecroppers is fascinating because she transports us into a world of fifth-rate education and desperate poverty that is fortunately unknown to most readers. Her portrayal of Barnette Hester, the privileged white man who physically threatened Roger Malcom and ended up with nearly fatal stab wounds, is fascinating, too, because Wexler takes pains to show him as more than a racist monster.

It would have been a coup for Wexler to solve the mass murder, to name names of the guilty after all these decades. In a way, however, the book tells a more compelling story because the case remains unsolved..."

-- San Francisco Chronicle, 1/5/03

"Through archival reports and firsthand interviews, Wexler offers fresh insights into the histories of the victims and suspects in the crime. But in the end, whether out of stubbornness, resignation, or fear, no one seems much inclined to set the record straight. Those closest to the murders haven't spoken for decades-and in those who haven't already died, the truth most certainly has."

-- Mother Jones, January/February 2003

"Laura Wexler's Fire in a Canebrake...could just as well have been titled The Anatomy of a Lynching, so well does it reconstruct the tangled chain of events that led to the cold-blooded murders of Roger Malcom, Dorothy Malcom, George Dorsey, and Mae Murray Dorsey."

--Washington City Paper, 1/24/03

Following a spate of excellent books on lynching - Without Sanctuary; At the Hands of Persons Unknown; A Lynching in the Heartland - comes this account of the murder of two black couples in Walton County, Ga., in July 1946. Following clues from published newspaper reports, FBI and legal records, and interviews conducted in 1997 with the participants who were still alive, Wexler plots a dramatic narrative involving sex, jealousy and violence, with a surprise witness to the murders who surfaces in 1991 claiming to have lived on the run from the Klan because of what he knew. Wexler's sense of pacing and denouement is rousing, and her intricate, careful portrayal of the social settings and racial imaginations of the post-WWII South are just as startling. The region was rife with a new sort of racial tension spurred by the demand for basic civil rights (particularly by returning black soldiers) to the point that, under direct orders of President Truman (who was under pressure from the NAACP and the Northern press), the FBI became involved. Smart and highly readable, if much less broad than other recent books, Wexler's account uncovers compelling personal and historic material in equal measure.

-- Publisher's Weekly

A freelance journalist unearths new information about an unsolved 1946 quadruple murder. While working at the University of Georgia in 1997, Wexler read a historical account of the shotgun lynching of two black men and two black women in Moore's Ford, Georgia. After stabbing his 29-year-old white landlord, Barnette Hester, 24-year-old African-American Roger Malcom ended up in the local jail. Despite rumblings of a lynching by inflamed whites, Malcom survived the jail stay, returning to the community on bond to await trial when it became clear Hester would survive the seemingly fatal wound. His release re-ignited the racists. Rumors flew that Malcom had been marked for death, and on July 25, 1946, it came´┐Żnot only to Malcom but also to his wife Dorothy and another young black couple, George and Mae Dorsey. Although state and federal authorities conducted investigations, with President Truman pushing for arrests, the case remained officially unsolved. Wexler wondered whether further examination of the disturbing incident would help her understand more contemporary racial conflicts such as those flowing from the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the altercation involving police and Rodney King. She traveled to Walton and Oconee counties in rural Georgia, where she interviewed more than a hundred people who lived through the 1946 ugliness or possessed secondhand information worth pursuing. She read microfilm. She unearthed documents from investigative agencies. She learned that the case had many truths, some emanating from the white sector of the population, some from the black sector, and some intermingling the accounts tinged by the race of the teller. After years of digging, Wexler concludes that she will never know for sure who killed the Malcoms and the Dorseys, but she believes the story has deep resonances with today's troubled race relations. Well-documented, well-written, and endlessly fascinating debut. (b&w photos throughout, not seen)

-- Kirkus

"A little-known story of a quadruple lynching in Georgia in 1946 of four black sharecroppers-two men, two women-is reexamined here so we don't forget. Drawing on the original uncensored FBI files and numerous interviews with residents of Walton County, where the crime occurred, Wexler conveys a tragic tale of sex, violence, lies and bootlegging centered in American racial inequality. Although there had been other cases of multiple lynchings, the magnitude of this crime and its occurrence at a time of deep national divisions on race helped to catapult civil rights to the top of the national agenda for President Truman. Wexler excels in her rich capacity to integrate the racial and social nuances in the everyday lives of those involved, exploring the dark underside of miscegenation, extramarital affairs, and the double standards associated with race and gender. This book is reflective and informative of the racial and moral contradictions that continue to haunt our nation, and raises questions about our national tendency to risk truth as a virtue when race is the issue."

-- Booklist


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