Books

Tom Eblen: New novel set in Central Kentucky explores complexities of race and class

Anthony
Anthony Herald-Leader

In his novel Pickering's Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky's overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a "Colored Notes" column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

The ad began: "Wanted: Good family with plenty of help. ... " It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: What might have happened if the "good family" that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family.

The book is masterfully written and well grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores race, class, relationship and the potential for change —issues that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

"I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven't changed," he said. "And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person."

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses but was a nurse's aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was labeled a "troublemaker."

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were allowed to live only in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

Desperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

"We didn't think to say 'whites only,'" Wilma Lawson, the farmer's wife, explains to readers. "We figured anyone who knew our place would know that."

Indeed they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone's secrets come out as the book's major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder whether any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony's book so interesting is that it doesn't try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

"I'm a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody's point of view," Anthony said. "I have to really try to understand their dilemma."

Racism and prejudice are no longer legal, but that doesn't mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

"The book is about change, about the possibility of change," Anthony said. "As Rudy says, if we can't change, we're lost, we're done. And that's really what I wanted to write about."

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