Among those images that recur in the myths of peoples widely separated in time and place is the woody perennial plant we call a tree. As the tree of life, it represents generative and regenerative processes; as the tree of knowledge, it bears the fruit of sexual awareness.
In her latest novel, Pam Durban puts her own spin on this archetype by revealing how the interrelationship of trunk and branches can apply to the affairs of humankind, how a single dramatic act (the single stem) can have an organic life of its own and branch out in unexpected ways.
“The Tree of Forgetfulness” in the novel’s title applies, to some extent, to the collective amnesia often imposed by a community following any event that threatens its long-cherished self-identity, based on long-held but perhaps unwarranted assumptions. In this case, the town is Aiken and the event in question was the real-life vigilante killing of three African-Americans by a small mob of vengeful white men in 1926.
The bare facts of this breach of justice are as follows. In the autumn of that year, three members of the Lowman family were taken from the county jail – the sheriff at the time may or may not have been complicit in their abduction – and driven to a wooded area north of town where they were gunned down in cold blood. About five months earlier, the three victims – two men and one woman – had been arrested for the murder of the previous sheriff during an armed raid of their house outside Monetta during which the family matriarch was also killed. Who fired the first shot – the raiding party or the suspected bootleggers – is not known, but when the verdicts in the first trial were overturned and the three were incarcerated while awaiting a second hearing, some local armed and masked men took the law into their own hands and meted out their own brand of “frontier justice” in a forest clearing.
When the outside world learned of this deed, the townspeople “circled their wagons” and refused to talk about what they knew or suspected. As a result, no one ever came to trial, and Aiken, thanks largely to a monthlong series of articles by an investigative reporter from the New York World, became, for a time, a “sore spot in South Carolina.” Despite its “lovely atmosphere of peace under its drooping trees,” wrote journalist Oliver H.P. Garrett, “Aiken is as lawless a community” as one can find anywhere in the Jim Crow South. In fact, Garrett asserted, “it is in Aiken County and southward through Horse Creek Valley that the Ku Klux Klan has its greatest strength” in South Carolina.
For her novel, Durban, who grew up in Aiken but now resides in Chapel Hill where she teaches at the University of North Carolina, took the bare bones of this narrative and fleshed in a fuller, fictionalized account of the event and its aftermath. The narrative, which begins in 1943 but flashes back for most of the book to 1926 before it returns to 1943 and then forward to 1980, is told through a variety of voices.
Some of those narrators are clearly based on participants in the real-life drama, including a swaggering New York newspaper man named Curtis N.R. Barrett and a redneck sheriff named Aubrey Timmerman, whom many suspected, even at the time, was implicated in the abduction and summary execution.
Others are more likely composites: Howard Aimer, the mild-mannered insurance agent who witnesses the forest carnage and is forever haunted by the memory; his wife Libba, insulated by class and culture to the social inequalities that make her lifestyle possible; and her young son Lewis, trying to reconcile what he has been taught in church with the often-mystifying behavior of the adults around him. There are also the Aimers’ cook Minnie Settles, whose belief that she works for a white family incapable of the bigotry and brutality of their “lower class” peers is shattered by the evidence of a pair of muddy shoes, and Minnie’s son Ezekial Settles, who is forced to flee his native South when he becomes a pawn of two men with conflicting interests.
Durban quotes, as the first epigraph of the book, a Brazilian proverb, which reads as follows: “When blood has been spilled, the tree of forgetfulness will not flourish.” So it is for the principal characters in this engrossing narrative, individuals whose lives are forever altered, both consciously and subconsciously, by one violent act whose perpetrators all of the citizens of one small Southern town, some out of conviction and most out of fear, protect from retribution.
Durban will be reading from and signing copies of “The Tree of Forgetfulness” on Saturday, Nov. 10, at Aiken Office Supply on Whiskey Road from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information on the book, visit the Louisiana State University Press on the web at www.lsupress.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).