Standing at the Scratch Line

Written by Guy Johnson
Review by Janet Mary Tomson

This is probably the most violent book I have read, but I continued in the knowledge that I was experiencing a part of American history in a way that has never come my way before. The story starts with the man-child Leroi Tremain, accidental killer of white men in the swamps near New Orleans. Forced to flee from his family, he goes north, and as WWI commences, he joins a “black” regiment, posted to France. Here he fights for freedom while segregation rules within the army, and he learns how to kill – a skill that equips him for civilian life.

“King” Tremain is an enigma: cold-blooded killer, protector of children, loyal to friends, unforgiving of weakness, he is a giant among the ordinary black people who fill this book, struggling to live in an unjust society.

There are appalling episodes of violence against corrupt and sadistic enemies, black as well as white, although it is the white men who are portrayed as almost universally guilty. The lot of women is harsh and unfair. The lives of the huge cast list in this book are all believable, and often I was left feeling shocked, drained and pained, but so impressed with the writer’s achievement.

I feel that everyone should read this book, not just because it is well written and powerful, gripping and profound, but as a reminder of the legacy of exploitation of black people on both sides of the Atlantic. I am certain that this is a significant book and one destined to become a classic. Incidentally, the author is the son of Maya Angelou.