What does one learn from history? Does one merely learn dates and facts with no understanding of what they mean, or does one learn the tortuous chain of events and complex motivations that result in war, genocide, racism, and all the other atrocities in which humanity revels? If one does learn the causes and effects of the long haul of history, is that enough to explain why a black man who has manipulated the white power structure of a racist town to his advantage through the sale of bootleg whiskey suddenly kills himself with a shotgun in a forgotten graveyard?
These are the questions that confront and haunt John Washington, a thirty-one-year-old black historian, and teacher who has been obsessed since he was eleven with finding out whyy his moonshiner father, Moses Washington, committed suicide in the hills of Chaneysville in Raystown, Pennsylvania.
His mentor and his father’s closest friend, a bootblack named Jack Crawley, has always felt that Moses Washington had a deeply rooted death wish and finally succeeded in getting that wish.
Washington, however, is convinced that there were deeper, more complex reasons for the suicide, that a chain of events which began nearly two hundred years earlier led to the Chaneysville incident.
This is the premise that gradually emerges from David Bradley’s extraordinary narrative, that determining what people are and why they act as they do is far more involved than merely tracing genealogy. In the case of John Washington, there is a long and complicated history of racism and slavery to be sorted out, and even then he can never know for sure what made his father pull the trigger.
Bradley’s approach in compiling this exceptional, multileveled work is an unconventionaln one. Instead of a traditional storyline with a clear-cut conflict, he offers an indirect narrative steeped in large chunks of historical exposition and lengthy folktales that do not seem irrelevant but build into a pattern and converge on the reader so that eventually almost all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. This approach has all the built-in risks of an essentially plotless story, but it works. John’s flashbacks regarding America’s racial history are so fascinatingly informative and so packed with polemical wit, irony, and subconscious anger that he keeps the reader hooked despite the lack of a conventional narrative.
The fact that Bradley is a black historian reared in Pennsylvania indicates that John Washington is clearly a stand-in for a lifetime of pent-up fury at American racism. How much of the narrative beyond that is autobiographical, only Bradley can say. What gradually becomes clear about Washington is that he is a product of his environment, of = his father’s strange, moody behavior and mysterious goings-on in the family attic, and of the stubbornness and pride of black culture taught him by Jack Crawley, his surrogaten father. These factors make him conscious of his inability to fit into the elitist white society of Raystown, yet, the same factors drive him to ask questions, especially after his father’s death. It turns out that Moses Washington – a prideful, solitary hunter – had been doing some sort of research in the attic, rummaging through and making notes on historical documents and history books – but why?
John Washington’s own research at age eleven, using the materials available to his father, leads him to continuous dead ends, but this – he discovers years later – is because he was expecting mere facts to yield a man’s thoughts, and they can never do that (to track vs. to trail). Still, his interest in history as a result of his research is fired into a lifelong passion, especially as it relates to his own oppressed people, and he dedicates his life to uncovering and recording the sordid causes and effects that led to a minority race achieving dominance over a majority one.
Thus, Bradley’s narrative, though set in Pennsylvania, takes in not only all of America but Africa and parts of Europe as well; his protagonist discusses, at seemingly random points, the financial, political, and human causes of slavery. Because this is not an objective book, the character of John Washington is free to imbue his wide-ranging historical discourse with sardonic anger and humor, offering a far more probing, vivid and eye-opening lesson.