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Death at Sunrise by Bonnie Moore

Death at Sunrise

by Bonnie Moore

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I chose to read “Death at Sunrise” by Bonnie Moore because of my long-standing interest in racism in America and the heroic struggles that have been waged against it. I appreciate greatly the author’s passion for racial equality and justice. I did not care for her book.

The book’s central figure is Rainey Bethea, a young African-American who in 1936 at the age of twenty-two rapes and kills an elderly white woman in Owensboro, Kentucky, during a fierce summer heat-wave. He is found guilty of the crime and is publicly executed before approximately 10,000 onlookers. The author is justifiably appalled at the carnival atmosphere of the execution, writing that Bethea heard last the “jeering and the touting of hot dogs and colas … as he danced one last time for their benefit.”

“Death at Sunrise” is almost entirely a work of non-fiction even though it is advertised as historical fiction. The author does include dialogue, and she offers information about Bethea’s early life some of which appears to be fictitious. The book needs to be one or the other, not a hybrid of fiction, biography, history, and criticism.

Utilizing all the skills that an excellent writer of historical fiction possesses, Mrs. Moore could have produced a moving account of a young black man orphaned before manhood, deficient in education and intelligence, and conditioned to racial subservience -- a limited human being striving to survive in a small town of a border state during the Great Depression but succumbing to institutional racism and his own significant flaws of character. This work of fiction could have been based on the life of Rainey Bethea and other young black males. It did not have to be about him specifically. That, however, was not Mrs. Moore’s intention. Her book is as much about the town of Owensboro and its people as it is about Bethea. Her intent was to write accurately about the last public hanging in America. That being her purpose, I understand her discomfort about straying beyond fact to make her account of Bethea’s experiences more dramatic.

The alternative would have been to write a book that is entirely non-fiction. Eliminate, consequently, the dialogue and the rare instances of subjective narration. Eliminate also much of the extraneous material that is quoted: editorials, the arrest warrant, the police transfer order, parts of the repetitive testimony given at Bethea’s trial, the petitions of writ of habeas corpus and other tedious documents the author discovered during her research. Keep, however, the historical information about hobo life, how the Works Progress Administration helped blacks, the history of lynching, segregation in Kentucky, how segregation of blacks in America became institutionalized, and all the commentary about racism in the final three chapters. But integrate better this material with Bethea’s experiences. Its inclusion is often disjointed.

Finally, this book was poorly edited. There are many typos. The author introduces an avalanche of people during the time frame of the committed crime. Two people early on have a conversation, but neither is identified. Later, the reader must try to separate in his mind the names of many people. In several places a quoted official document is indented, but then the author’s narration resumes within the indentation. In one instance the author identifies the writer of a specific letter, the letter is quoted, and the name given at the end of the letter is that of a different person.

I applaud the author for her purpose and passion. I did not like the finished product. ( )
  HaroldTitus | May 22, 2012 |
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