Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: The Eyes of Willie McGee

The Eyes of Willie McGee

After I read and reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird, I was offered The Eyes of Willie McGee to review.  And frankly, it was impossible to turn it down.  Here's a real-life version of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, though it's far murkier and complicated.  Willie McGee was an African-American man who, in 1945, was sentenced to death for raping a white housewife, Willette Hawkins.  His trial was unfair- he was tried by an all-white jury who debated for only about two minutes before convicting him in a hostile courthouse where he couldn't even put together two words coherently, he was so terrified of being lynched by the mob outside.

Willie McGee caught the interest of many civil rights organizations in America (mainly the Communists, which may have been troublesome for him), and even more people around the world.  William Faulkner spoke out about him.  Norman Mailer.  Letters poured in from China, Germany, the UK and countless other places, pleading his innocence.

But did those supporters really have the facts straight?  As Alex Heard investigates the case, he finds multiple, serious discrepancies about the "facts" presented.  Did Willie and Willette have a forbidden affair?  Who was Willie's wife at the time, and did she really take care of his children?  Was Willie innocent?  Was Willette as horrible and manipulative as some people believe?

Willie McGee Life Magazine
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It was fascinating to read and fit so well with what seems to have become a reading trend for me this year- race relations in the American south in the mid-20th century.  In 1940s and 1950s Mississippi, only black men could be sentenced to death for rape.  White men would, at most, get life in prison (and often got out early).  As if that wasn't unfair enough, many black men didn't even make it to trial.  They would often be attacked by mobs and lynched.  Or sometimes they'd go to trial and be sentenced to death so quickly, it was basically a "legal lynching."  It was really horrifying to read, and really hearkened back to the Civil War to me, as Mississippi and other states insisted that prosecuting criminals was a state's duty and that the federal government should mind its own business.

I found the entirety of this book to be excellent reading, but one section in particular on William Faulkner might interest any bookworm.  His thoughts on race, his words on race relations in the South and how they should be conducted, and then his books on the subject are all so varied and complex, I can't help but think he (and many others) wasn't sure what he wanted in terms of racial equality in the South.

Willie McGee Life Magazine
Besides William Faulkner and the racist laws prevalent in Mississippi at the time, Alex Heard also discusses Communism and the way Communists were treated by the government (and everyone else) in the 1950s.  He touches on newspaper titans, white supremacist senators, Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jessica Mitford and the way people can manipulate facts to make a rape victim seem like a malicious and cruel adulterer.

But that's the sad (and fascinating) thing.  What were the facts?  Whites who remember Willette Hawkins strongly believe that she was raped.  Blacks who remember Willie McGee believe he was innocent and was the victim of a corrupt justice system.  Both sides are so strong in their beliefs that they are unwilling to budge, looking at the same trial transcripts, the same information- and are unable to meet in the middle.

Jessica Mitford with Willie McGee Poster
Honestly, I don't read much non-fiction and I found this book absolutely riveting.  It was a disturbing portrait of America after World War II, but it was also a very successful attempt to view the country through the lens of one case and the way it affected everyone.  It was amazing to see how far news of Willie McGee spread- we like to think that we live in a global environment now, but even in the 1950s, people as far away as the USSR and China knew and had strong opinions about one African-American man sentenced to death.  It was amazing to read about someone who so captured the public imagination and who helped, in some small part, in starting a full-scale Civil Rights movement.

NOTE:  NPR featured the Willie McGee story on Radio Diaries.  It was an excellent documentary, and I highly recommend listening to it.

This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.

24 comments:

  1. Wow! Great review of what sounds like a great book! Certainly an interesting period of history, with so much going on. I love that this book looks at the issues from both sides and examines the beliefs on both sides.

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  2. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite books and I'm sure I would find this one interesting too - it sounds fascinating. It was so unfair that black and white people should be given different punishments for the same crime. I'm glad his case received so much global attention and could help the Civil Rights movement, even in a small way.

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  3. Hm, I'm interested to see what Faulkner had to say about it all, even though he's not a favorite author of mine. My first response to the disparity between sentences for black men and white men convicted of rape was outrage, of course, but there's still some pretty glaring racial disparities in the justice system (mandatory minimum sentences for crack vs powder cocaine, for instance). Still a long way to go.

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  4. This sounds like a truly interesting read and your review shows that it's a very worthy read as well. I'd love to read it, because it looks at both sides of the issue of race and it seems to engage with a period in US history that is very fascinating to me, especially because of the policy regarding communist and race-segregation.

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  5. Thank you thank you thank you for this wonderful review! Great use of images, too. I'm always on the lookout for interesting non-fiction. This one's on my reading list now for sure.

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  6. Amy- Yes, it is a fascinating one! I also really liked how unbiased it was. I don't think Heard himself really knew what to believe, and that definitely made him look at it from all angles.

    Helen- It's one of my favorites, too! And yes, it's so interesting how some people rise to so much fame, isn't it? And some do not.

    Jenny- He isn't my favorite, either. I think I've only read one book by him. And I agree about disparities existing now, too, but hopefully we continue to make progress...

    Iris- Yes, the whole communism thing IS fascinating. How it really took the country by storm. Have you seen Good Night & Good Luck? If not, I highly recommend it!

    Bookshelf Monstrosity- I am glad you like the pictures! After reading this one, I started doing a little research myself and it was so great to see the Life pictures!

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  7. What a fascinating book! So many interesting aspect to it. I'm so glad you reviewed it--I'm adding it to my wishlist right now.

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  8. I would love to see this as required reading in high school classes after To Kill a Mockingbird. It would have been eye-opening to see the fictional story brought into real life. I think teens need to have more exposure to the backgrounds behind the novels they are forced to read to really give them a sense of their historical position and importance.

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  9. I'm reading To Kill a Mockingbird now for school, and Willie McGee looks like an excellent companion to the story. Thanks for the heads up!

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  10. This is a great review, Aarti! I'm really impressed the author was able to pull together so many strands and stories into something coherent -- I feel like that would be a challenge. I'm definitely looking for this book.

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  11. Great review Aarti.
    To say that lie was unfair back then is such an understatement. I can't even imagine

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  12. This sounds fabulous. I am very interested in this time period and I like to see which stories have inspired writers to go exploring and dig deeper. SInce you are in Chicago, I thought of a book that I read that you might want to read since you are intrigued by this topic. It's called Arc of Justice, by Kevin Boyle and it was pretty fascinating.

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  13. How is it that I've never heard of this book? It sounds fascinating, especially with the connection to Faulkner. I feel a connection with the South's tragic history of racism because I am a Southerner with deep roots in Mississippi.

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  14. This sounds amazing and amazingly interesting.
    I love it when books about race-relations back then are done right. I'm very interested in this book! :-)

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  15. Katy- I hope if you read it that you enjoy it. I certainly did!

    Kristen- You are so right. I think a lot of the books read in high school need more context to them- that's why I like the idea of teaching history and English in tandem.

    Dannie- Yes, I think it would be a perfect companion story!

    Kim- Thank you :-) I think it must have been challenging, too, especially with so many different stories without real evidence.

    Blodeuedd- It's really hard to imagine, but it wasn't so long ago... and so I can't imagine it's completely done away with yet.

    Nicole- Thanks so much for the recommendation! Onto the wish list Boyle goes!

    Stephanie- Well, it's brand-new and not even out yet, so don't worry about not having heard of it!

    Brizmus- I agree! It's so great when a nuanced view is presented!

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  16. I loved your review, Aarti. The book sounds fascinating! It'd be interesting to compare the then and the now. Like Jenny (and you) I think there's still a long way to go. There certainly is in my country.

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  17. This sounds like a fascinating book. I'm going to see if I can get my hands on this book.

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  18. Oh this sounds like a great book. I agree with Kristen, I would want students to read this in conjunction with To Kill a Mockingbird. History and literature just can't be taught separately to my mind.

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  19. Nymeth- Thank you! I loved the book, and I agree there is along way to go, but it was interesting to see how far we've come, too.

    Vasilly- I think you'd really like it, so I hope you can find it.

    Zee- Yes, I am of the same opinion. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but I love it more now that I know the context it was written in.

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  20. This sounds like a fascinating book! I have also recently been reading a lot about the African-American population around the turn of the century, and even a little bit about slavery in America. They are hard topics to read about, and though these issues are much removed in time, it's hard not to feel ashamed of the part that white Americans played in these miserable parts of history. It sounds as though this case in particular generated a lot of interest and outrage and I think it would be really interesting to read more about it. Great review, Aarti. This is something that I am definitely going to want to read.

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  22. I'm late to your review, but I HAD to leave a comment! I love your review of this book and this sounds like exactly my cup of tea. Thanks for the detailed analysis, I'm off to add it!

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  23. Clearly I'm behind on blog reading, but this sounds like a fantastic read. The next book up in my stack is of a similar theme, set in my hometown in MS (also non-fiction). If it's any good, I'll let you know!

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  24. This sounds like a definite must-read. your review really sold me. thanks

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