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Fire in a Canebrake


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About the Author

Laura Wexler's work has appeared in The Oxford American, DoubleTake, and Utne Reader, among other publications. She has taught writing at the University of Georgia and Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Baltimore. Visit the author's website at


To the numerous books on lynching and the anti-lynching movement in America, Waldrep (history, San Francisco State Univ.) now adds a detailed study of the word lynching and its changing meaning over 200 years of American history. Legend credits Charles Lynch of Virginia as the term's source, based on his suppression of loyalists during the American Revolution through extralegal beatings and killings. The term became common currency during the 19th century to describe the killing by a mob of an accused individual, regardless of race. Though some newspapers condemned the practice, others saw it as a reflection of the popular will and a necessary means of maintaining order in frontier America. Following the Civil War, white Southerners used violence and terror to suppress black freedmen. By the beginning of the 20th century, anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells succeeded in defining the term as exclusively white-on-black violence. However, by century's end some critics began referring to the practice of legal lynching through abuse of the criminal justice system, and the existence of hate crimes against other nonwhites and gays suggest possible new ways to expand the definition. Waldrep's widely researched work provides an excellent overview of a horrendous practice in American society. In contrast to Waldrep's broad study, journalist Wexler's book focuses on the last mass lynching in America, when a mob shot two black men and two black women in Walton County, GA, on July 25, 1946. Though the killings became national news, law enforcement officials failed to identify the killers, and no one has yet been legally connected to the lynching. Wexler uses interviews, newspaper accounts, archival materials, and FBI reports to present the crime's background, police investigation, and aftermath. As with Waldrep's book, this reflective study is recommended for all libraries.-Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ., Parkersburg Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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. According to journalist Wexler, the murders of Roger and Dorothy Malcolm and George and Mae Dorsey were the last of more than 3,000 mob lynchings of African-Americans in the United States. 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 (43 years after the killings) claiming to have lived on the run from the Klan because of what he knew. But while 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 in a lynching for the first time. Smart and highly readable, if much less broad than other recent books, Wexler's account uncovers compelling personal and historic material in equal measure. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Melissa Fay Greene The Atlanta Journal-Constitution This is an outstanding work of narrative journalism, a book about murders and cover-ups that gleams with the plain beauty of truth-telling.
Los Angeles Times Thoroughly researched and superbly written.
Juan Williams author of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 This is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood with the added fuel of race, sex, and the quirks of Southern culture.

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