Desolate, dusty Killjoy, Texas, was home to eight, dirt-poor sharecropping families in 1930. Slavery was over, but “freedom” wasn’t something they could eat or drink, and the promise of “forty acres and a mule” didn’t materialize. Hired to work the fields, they were cheated out of wages while being tied to soul-breaking work.
This fictional story of Bertha and Jim Jones and their three children represents what happened to most blacks mired in the Jim Crow South. While this family did get out, their path wasn’t smooth.
Bertha and Jim are loving parents who want their children to have a better life than they’ve had. They make sure their children attend the three-room schoolhouse and learn to read and write along with them. When an uncle gives the oldest son Warren a guitar, the boy learns quickly, changing the course of his life. The more attention he attracts for his musical skills, the smaller the tiny town begins to feel. Without meaning to, he lands in trouble and is arrested.
Warren runs from the prison with yelping dogs on his trail, and friends help him escape to Houston. Within weeks, as Pearl Harbor sends a shocked America into war, he joins the Navy. What happens afterwards is based on the author’s own experiences in that war.
While Killjoy has the potential for great drama, it is never fully realized. The story requires airing out with more details and background. Clark might have added war scenes (of the sort he surely remembers), for example, or gone deeper into his characters’ emotions. Instead of a rather plodding recitation of who said what, more direct dialogue would have been welcome. Still, readers will be pulling for this young man and his family; we want good things to happen. And despite its flaws, Killjoy adds to the bigger story of how blacks migrated out of the South to find a better life.
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