The legends say something happened in Chaneysville. The Chaneysville Incident is the powerful story of one man's obsession with discovering what that something wasa quest that takes the brilliant and bitter young black historian John Washington back through the secrets and buried evil of his heritage. Returning home to care for and then bury his father's closest friend and his own guardian, Old Jack Crawley, he comes upon the scant records of his family's proud and tragic history, which he drives himself to reconstruct and accept. This is the story of John's relationship with his family, the town, and the woman he loves; and also between the past and the present, between oppression and guilt, hate and violence, love and acceptance.
David Bradley's second book, The Chaneysville Incident, took ten years to complete. A deeply moving work set in the mountains of Pennsylvania, it received the PEN/Faulkner Award as the best novel of 1981. John Washington, the novel's hero, is a history professor and scholar, a man with an impressive mastery of his academic world, a proud rebuke to stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority. But he is utterly detached from his heritage; he is a historian of other people's history who wants to believe that his identity as a black man goes no further than the color of his skin. John is nevertheless driven by circumstances and his own demons to go back home, to the mountains of Pennsylvania, and back in time, to the lives of his ancestors, to uncover the truth about his father and his father's father and, ultimately, about himself.
The novel opens with Washington, the consummate professional whose demons are well contained deep within his subconscious, having reached a critical point in his life. His girlfriend, Judith, demands a greater emotional commitment, which he finds he is unable to give. When he is summoned back to the town of his birth by an urgent message advising him of the imminent death of Old Jack, the only one of the three men who reared him still living, he begins an introspective journey that challenges his willingness and ability to expiate his demons. With the help of the dying Jack, he enters a personal history he had staunchly avoided because of an emotionally inaccessible father and the contempt that he holds for his mother. Washington uncovers the mystery of his father's suicide; learns the heroic truth of how his great-grandfather, an ex-slave, was killed when caught helping twelve runaways; discovers that his contempt for his mother is misplaced; and creates within himself a place of compassion where commitment to Judith can grow.
The heroes of The Chaneysville Incident—John Washington; his father, Moses; and his grandfather, Brobdingnag C. K.—stand apart as strong, contemplative, intellectual men. Each, in his own way, uses tools of logic and creativity to invent ways of understanding and surviving in an illogical, hostile world. But they are also men who draw their strength from and give their lives for family, community, and heritage. As John grows up, his disconnection from family, community, and heritage lead him to an unbalanced life—strong intellect, malnourished spirit—and a tormented psyche. In beautiful and precise prose, Bradley tells the story of how that balance between intellect and spirit was regained, and how an intelligent reclamation of one's heritage can be a source of strength and peace.