When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

Written by Bradley Greenburg
Review by Lynn Guest

The McGhees, a black family freed from slavery, flee the Jim Crow laws and poverty of post-Civil War Alabama for Indiana hoping to buy land. Three generations, Amos, James and young Clayton, struggle to build up a prosperous farm, which they must defend against local racism and vigilantes. Thirty years later, Clayton is still farming but land to extend the railway is valuable. Ambitious townspeople have their eyes on the McGhee farm and will not stop at arson or murder to get it.

The first section, 1863-68, is gripping and pacy. The McGhees are such likeable, three-dimensional characters that casual bigotry is as distressing as the actual violence they encounter. Particularly strong is the description of James’s ride north. In state after state, prejudice and fear of a different race force him to move on, but he also meets acts of kindness. The second half, 1901-28, is less successful. Clayton and his family fade to the background, replaced by a prosperous white family. The battle between a greedy lawyer, Jeffries, and his cultured, alcoholic wife over the soul of their son becomes the main plot. These characters are also three-dimensional, but the Jeffrieses are not particularly sympathetic. Their battle is reflected in the exploding growth of the frontier town: business and profit over anything else. The plot to seize the farmland is confused, and the novel ends in a melodramatic shoot-out.

However, this is a powerful novel, well worth reading. The black dialogue especially reads beautifully. Hatred and the frustrations of casual racism are made terrifyingly believable. There is a chilling Ku Klux Klan scene. A slight fault: the nobility of the blacks and their supporters against cinematically evil baddies can be too two-dimensional. To be fair, another reader might well find the second section more successful.