Jerry Dean Pate’s historical novel offers a conversational analysis of Southern racism and prejudice using the fortunes of a small South Carolina town called Haigler’s Crossing.
The frame story, set in 1936, begins with young journalist Betsy McCall attempting to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Required to prove a relative of hers served in the Confederate military, she reads aloud a letter written by a relative just after he fought at Gettysburg. The letter mentions Confederate soldiers deserting—an idea that horrifies club members indoctrinated with the romantic myth of Southern honor, who kick Betsy out.
Later, Betsy’s older newspaper colleague, Vernon Covington, schools her on the errant thinking (the titular “bad beliefs”) that has fueled area disputes since slavery. The narrative is quickly taken over by Vernon’s stories, which begin with the origins of the Civil War and its aftermath and then turn to a more recent local labor dispute involving a local farmer who built a textile mill and hired an avaricious man to run it, which led to the death of Betsy’s aunt and drove Vernon from his newspaper business.
The narrative whisks along with sprightly incidents and brisk description—more a loose series of anecdotes than tight plotting. The differences in time frames can be jarring, and it’s difficult to see a solid connection between the Civil War-related stories and those of the textile mill. Additionally, due to the episodic set-up, there’s little payoff or resolution to any of the stories, and characters are less well-rounded than boldly sketched with one or two identifying traits.
While the author clearly condemns the troubling beliefs of some of his characters, his thematic lesson isn’t borne out by the action, as these beliefs work out well for the greedy, selfish men cheating others to keep power.
Nonetheless, this is a lively narrative that will entertain readers, even if its message is, perhaps, the opposite of what the author intended.
Also available as an ebook