- Like Trees, Walking
Like Trees, Walking is an historical novel, an exploration of the liminal edges of truth and compassionate imagination. Set in Mobile, Alabama, Howard's debut novel explores local life surrounding the 1981 random lynching of nineteen-year old Michael Donald by two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The focus of the novel is not on the act itself, but its aftermath, how the entire community responds to the untimely removal of this young man from his environment. The story encourages the reader to question the nature of genre and its consequences: as a novel, it is simultaneously chilling and heartwarming; as a historical document, it is a telescopic view of the heinous crimes of a racist society. The historic leans toward the literary and allows the reader to encounter the imagined world Donald leaves behind: his mother, his high school friends, his teachers, his neighbors, his killers and enemies. Community life, in the absence of Michael Donald, is a wrenching world fractured by violence and Howard renders the experience in a forceful, unflinching manner.
The novel is written from the first-person point of view of Paul's brother, Roy; Paul is the friend who discovers Donald's body. Howard deftly avoids what could have easily [End Page 1117] become sentimental and maudlin by enabling the narrator, and the entire Deacon family, with a justifiable professional detachment: the Deacons are the local morticians of choice, the ones in whom the neighborhood trusts to " . . . take them home and make them comfortable." Narrator Roy Deacon is a teenager, but one who is used to the logistics of death, a young man who drives the family hearse for local funerals and works part-time in the mortuary. However, he is an emotional narrator and passionately voices his frustrations at being unable to negotiate the senselessness of Donald's murder with the professional tasks he must perform. In his detachment, he conveys emotion through imagery rather than dialogue.
Like Trees, Walking treads a fine line between the historic and the imagined. On the periphery of the narrative is the timeline of civil rights icons, those whose work stands in the balance with this lynching, those who could easily become the focus if the story's gaze wandered from the perspective of the teenaged narrator. Yet this is not the story of historic response to societal repression; this is the story of contemporary adolescents directly confronting the crimes of history. We see the historic as it takes up residence in the front yards of the characters, omnipresent yet outside, separated by the walls and doors of genre.
Yet, without a working knowledge of the specific historic events, one wonders where the lines of the imagination and the historic meet. The death of Michael Donald is a historic fact and the fact of his living was not imagined. Certainly, there was a person who first encountered his body. Given the closely-knit community where he lived, it is not implausible that someone he knew made that gruesome first discovery. As a presentation of history, do we do a disservice to the truth-filled, historic moment by conjuring the world surrounding the evidential? Should the imagined world of Michael Donald become more prominent than the actual world he departed? The historical novel allows the novelist to fill in the gaps of history, to confront lacuna and extrapolate. However, in the instance where the historic moment falls within our generations and many of the potential witnesses are conceivably in our midst, is there a literary sense of responsibility to honor the actual experiences of those in question?
This is not a question of skill or style, but ultimately a question of genre. Howard writes searing prose that is poignant and memorable, words that sometimes border on the poetic in their ability to convey layers of emotional truth and substance. The characters that are most fully realized are those with a more limited personal attachment to Michael Donald: the Deacon brothers' father, Roy Deacon's girlfriend, the high school drama teacher. These are the understandable, realistic characters...