Hendrix, Florida, is a poverty-stricken town haunted by a 1930s lynching of a young man and his family. Jolie Hoyt is the daughter of the sprawling Hoyt family whose roots extend deeply into the Hendrix soil. In the summer of 1996 Jolie and her best friend Lena are enjoying their last weeks together before Lena goes north for college. Lena sets Jolie up on a blind date with Sam Lense, an anthropology graduate student doing research on local families. Jolie expects nothing from the set-up but the two develop an intense relationship that lasts beyond the summer. When Sam’s research leads to questions about the Henry Kite lynching, the Hoyt men retaliate by shooting Sam in the back. It’s not certain if murder was the intent, but Sam gets the message and abandons Jolie, Hendrix, and his research.
Twelve years later, an African-American businessman named Hollis Frazier arrives in Cleary, Florida, searching for his father’s fingers, which were chopped off during the horrific days after the lynching. The fingers were purportedly kept as a gruesome souvenir, and Frazier and his elderly brother want to bury their father’s lost fingers with the rest of his body. Their search for the truth leads them to Jolie and Sam, and digs up more ugly secrets about Hendrix and the Hoyts.
This is not an historical novel per se, but a novel with a contemporary setting where the conflict hinges on an event from the past. Owens explores a number of themes, including racial and cultural identity, and the power of our collective past to influence our present. And while there’s resolution to several of the novel’s key conflicts, American Ghost ends with a feeling that all will never be right in Hendrix.