Big Lies in a Small Town
Review: Roshiela Moonsamy
The plot of Big Lies in a Small Town centres on a mural that was created to adorn a wall in the post office of a town called Edenton in North Carolina in the USA.
The story goes back and forth between 1940, when the mural was being painted, and 2018, when it is being restored.
In the present day, Morgan Christopher gets sprung out of jail by Lisa Williams, the daughter of well-known and late artist, Jesse Williams. In his will, Jesse specifies that Morgan must be the one to restore the mural in time for the opening of his gallery.
Although an art student, Morgan has no idea why she was chosen and an even bigger mystery is what happened to the mural, why was it never installed in the post office, and especially, what happened to the artist, another young woman named Anna Dale.
Back in 1940, Anna is one of the winning artists in the 48-States Mural Competition.
The only problem is that her entry was for a post office in her home state of New Jersey, but she was being offered the assignment for a town in North Carolina.
Anna, who has recently lost her mother, heads off to take on her first paying job. It is also her first time away from home.
What she finds in Edenton is a town passionate about its history, irritated that their own town artist, Martin Drapple had not been awarded the mural, and unsure that a woman could be up to the task.
In addition to the sexism she must endure, Anna also finds Edenton to be a racially segregated town where old prejudices run deep.
Eyebrows are raised when a talented black high school pupil, Jesse, only a few years younger than her, starts helping with the mural and Anna starts spending far too much time working at her studio in an old warehouse.
Even Jesse’s own family is concerned for his safety and Anna understands why as her landlady, Myrtle Simms, tells her of a time when black men and boys had been beaten and lynched for getting too close to white women. Ms Myrtle said it didn’t happen anymore “and certainly not in Edenton” but the worry on Jesse’s parents’ faces tells Anna they didn’t want their son to be Edenton’s first.
Sure enough something dreadful happens. In fact, what happened to Anna was more horrific than I could have imagined.
As I read this book, scenes of protests across America flashed across my television screen. They were ignited after yet another unarmed black person was killed at the hands of police. George Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis after a white police officer, pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck as he was face down on the street.
Floyd had begged that he couldn’t breathe.
Although Big Lies in a Small Town is a work of fiction, I couldn’t help but draw parallels when in the story there are fears from Anna and Jesse’s family that he would be treated unfairly by police and blamed for the incidents that turned their lives upside down.
The sad part is that the story was set in an America of 80 years ago and the calls for equal rights are still being made today.
More recently, author Dianne Chamberlain spent time in the real town of Edenton where she stumbled upon the Racial Reconciliation group that had met at the United Methodist Church for several years.
Through the group she met two African-American men, Norman Brinkley and historian Dr Ben Speller, who were boys in Edenton in the 1940s and gave her some idea of what Jesse’s life would have been like.
Her observations of the group led Chamberlain to believe the community was making progress in reconciliation.
This is also a coming-of-age story in some respects as Anna and Morgan are both young artists who come from unstable families and find themselves struggling self-doubt as they take on massive projects.
In Morgan’s case, she doesn’t even know how to restore artwork and there is alot hinging on her success.
They are united by the mural, which has stories of its own to tell.
This story is easy to follow, the characters are finely drawn and the intrigue doesn’t stop until the final pages.