Albert French lights up the monstrous face of American racism in this harrowing tale of ten-year-old Billy Lee Turner, who is convicted of and executed for murdering a white girl in Banes County, Mississippi in 1937. Billy is about the deaths of two children, one girl, one boy, the girl's death an accident, the boy's a murder perpetrated by the state. Though the events Billy records occur during the 1930s in a small Mississippi town, the range of characters, emotions, and social forces, and the inexorable march to doom of a ten-year-old boy and the society that dooms him, catapult the story far beyond a specific time and location. Narrated by an anonymous observer in the rich accents of the region, constructed in a series of powerfully lean vignettes, Billy imparts an intensity that is nearly unbearable. It is a tour de force of dramatic compression. Albert French evokes with cinematic vividness the picking fields and town streets; the heat, the dust, the unrelenting sun, the poverty of 1930s Mississippi. High-spirited Billy; his mysterious and passionate mother, Cinder; his friend, Gumpy; and other characters black and white are realized with depth and authority. Told in classic, unrelieved terms yet with remarkable compassion and restraint, their story is an unsentimental and ultimately heart-rending vision of racial injustice. Billy is, quite simply, one of the most powerfully affecting novels to come along in years.
A talented writer makes his debut in this stark, harrowing novel of a young black boy's death. Forcefully told, though sometimes veering into melodrama, the story vivifies the consequences of racial hatred. In 1937, in the small town of Banes, Miss., 10-year-old Billy Lee Turner lives with his mother in one of the miserable shanties of the black ghetto called the Patch. Headstrong Billy convinces another youngster to enter the white area of town, where they are attacked by teenaged cousins who are enraged to see black boys in ``their'' pond. Seeking to escape, Billy impulsively stabs one of the girls; she dies, and the white community works itself into a paroxysm of rage and violence. Though Billy is too young to comprehend what he has done, he is sentenced to the electric chair. The insistent voice of the narrator--convincingly rural, unlettered, and lower class--propels the narrative at a frantic pace, and the characters are delineated through vernacular dialogue that reproduces the unvarnished racism of most of the white community and the routinely profane interchanges of the uneducated blacks. Though nearly every scene is rendered with high-glare intensity, the closing episodes set in the Death House are especially searing. If in his need to sustain a feverish atmosphere French scants subtleties, the novel pulses with its unnerving vision of inhumanity legalized under the name of justice. (Nov.)