It’s rare to find a book that is not only a book that needs to be read widely and right now and is also a masterly work of fiction. I find books-of-the-times to be, usually, too preachy or too worried about conveying a message at the expense of plot and characterization. In The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines, I found a book that can do both.
This book will grab every readers from the first pages, when Brady Sims stands up in a courthouse and shoots his son right after the son has been sentenced. Sims then tells the men who were escorting his son back to jail to have the sheriff give him two hours before coming after him. Understandably, everyone in the courthouse is stunned. They know Brady. He casts a long shadow in this southern town, especially among the Black inhabitants. So why would he do such a thing?
That’s what our narrator, a Black reporter who lived away from the town for a while before returning. The reporter’s White boss tells him to write up a “human interest” story on Sims—presumably to help the Whites understand what the hell just happened. The reporter goes out to gather information, after telling the sheriff that he doesn’t know what’s going on or where Sims went. When we arrive at the reporter’s source of information (the local barbershop), it becomes clear that he know a lot more than he told the sheriff. The rest of the story unfolds while the men at the barbershop tell Sims’s story.
I said The Tragedy of Brady Sims was a book for right now. What I mean by that is this book is, underneath the surface story of chasing after Sims and getting his story, about how Black people are expected to police themselves in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has done important work raising the national (especially the White) consciousness about how often Black people are killed by police officers. Young Black children are often taught by their parents how to deal with police so that they reduce their risk of being shot and killed. In this novel, Brady Sims is the one who teaches the Black children of this town to police themselves. He’s a bogeyman who will come after kids if they put a toe out of line and then beat them until they’re too scared to do it again.
As the reporter sits in the local barbershop, the men who tell him about Sims are all very knowing. They know exactly what happened and why. None of them appear saddened or angry. They seem more resigned than anything else. Sims’ story is tragic, certainly, but not as tragic to me as an entire population who can accept the sudden, violent death of a teenager who got in trouble with the law. The Tragedy of Brady Sims says so much in an astonishingly small number of pages.
I hope this subtly instructive book gets all the attention as it deserves.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 29 August 2017.
Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend this to relatives who don’t understand Black Lives Matter and/or say racist things at family gatherings.