Out Of The Night That Covers Me

Written by Pat Cunningham Devoto
Review by Marcia K. Matthews

This Southern adventure starts like Harry Potter, with a little boy on a train platform, but his journey carries him not into magic but into servitude. The sheltered rich boy, whose mother has died, is going to live with Aunt Nelda and Uncle Luther, an Alabama sharecropper. On the train, John befriends a kindly banker and his wife. The banker is called Judge because he routinely makes life and death decisions when he advances money and supplies to the sharecroppers of Lower Peach Tree.

Put to work in the cotton fields, John struggles to survive sunburn and whipping from his brutal uncle. Like Justice, Judge Vance is blind, but he and Mrs. Vance sympathize with the boy. Running errands for the Judge, John meets his assistant Tuway, an intelligent black man, who was raised by an herbalist in the swamp. Mama Tuway is the matriarch of a community at the Bend, where runaway farmhands await their chance to hop a freight train north to Chicago, their promised land. John observes Tuway’s secret activities and sees a chance for himself to join the exodus. In the pre-Civil-Rights-era South, he learns prejudice and loses his own.

Devoto alternates her scenes between John in Lower Peach Tree and Mama Tuway at the Bend, using the best witness viewpoint, in imagistic, colloquial language. She wrestles with large themes of the human condition, work, country vs. city, faith and family. In writing from a child’s point of view, irony is a natural byproduct: the reader knows what the child cannot. Devoto handles this well, taking us back to a time before we knew why adults act the way they do. Exotic locale, political intrigue and an element of fable spice this heady gumbo.