Saturday, April 24, 2010
Review: 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?
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.
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.
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.