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The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley
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The Chaneysville Incident (1981)

by David Bradley

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347448,778 (4.03)6
The son of a moonshiner and the grandson of a slave, a brilliant but bitter Black historian wades through the dark secrets of his heritage to reconstruct and, finally, to accept his family's tragic history.

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It took me a lot of time to decide whether I wanted to give this book 4 stars or just 3. I took the easy way out and gave it three-and-a-half stars. I am happy with that decision.

This is the story of a historian putting his craft to practical use in searching for the mystery behind his father's suicide/murder/accidental death (turns out to be suicide, as far as the historian is concerned). It is also the story of a young black man raised in a Pennsylvanian county where racism and bigotry still manage to exist, and his efforts to raise himself above those roots while still being bound to them. It is also the story of a young black man who feels profound hatred towards whites, yet who finds his romantic connections with white women.

It is, in short, the story of conflict and the realization that some conflicts cannot be resolved, but must be accepted and dealt with rationally. It is the story about seeking - and accepting - the truth. It is also the story about the need we have to find coherence and continuity to our lives.

This is, in fact, two books. The first is about the black experience in America. The second is about the natural desire all people have to understand themselves. Bradley does well, perhaps, in articulating the two books, but in the effort to combine them into one story I believe he fails. Ultimately, the story meanders too much between too many subplots with only a few reaching some conclusion, and with very little conviction in many of them.

The last third of the book is quixotic: it is maybe the most fulfilling part of the novel, and displays excellent literary talent; it also seems to arise out of nowhere, as if it could suffice as the conclusion to what is, in the end, an extremely complex novel. ( )
  jpporter | Dec 31, 2013 |
The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley’s brilliant novel, begins very simply with a phone call. John Washington, a young black history professor learns that Jack, an old friend of Moses Washington, John’s father and surrogate father to John after Moses’ death, is very ill and wishes to see him.

Jack is a natural storyteller, the keeper of the oral and folk history of the community and especially of Moses Washington. John becomes obsessed with the suicide death of Moses and, after Jack’s funeral, he goes on a journey of discovery to find out what really happened. Moses had spent years on his own journey one, which, like his Biblical namesake, has led him towards a Promised Land where he hoped to meet with his ancestors. But the story is incomplete and the gaps are just as important as the facts. Now, John is determined to follow Moses’ path to fill in those gaps.

At first, John treats it like the pedant he is. History, he has believed, is facts and so he looks at, not only the few facts he knows about his father but those surrounding American slavery. But, slowly as he moves further into the story and, as he is joined by Judith, a white psychiatrist and his lover, he begins to see history differently. Facts are really the bare bones upon which historians build their stories and so, when the facts no longer carry the story, he builds his own edifice around them. In the process, by combining factual history with the folk history he had learned from Jack, he begins to grasp his own place in the story.

John’s telling of history is a mostly male story. Women are peripheral at best and are often portrayed as cold, or gossipy, sometimes traitorous, or simply as ‘helpmates’ to their men. Judith’s purpose, for the most part, seems to be to as audience to John’s story. White people also play little and mostly negative roles and, again, Judith seems to represent John’s ambiguous attitude toward the possibility of unity between the races. This ambiguity is enhanced by the ending which cannot be easily interpreted. John leaves Judith to build a pyre in which he burns all of his research notes. While he is pouring kerosene on the fire, he dribbles some on his boots but it is not clear whether this is intentional:

" As I struck the match it came to me how strange it would all look to someone else, someone from far away. And as I dropped the match to the wood and watched the flames go twisting, I wondered if that someone would understand. Not just someone; Judith. I wondered if she would understand when she saw the smoke go rising from the far side of the Hill."

Mixing real history with fiction, Bradley has created a moving and complex story. Beautiful and lyrical in its prose, it is a compelling and challenging tale of a man’s search for his own identity. ( )
  lostinalibrary | Nov 16, 2013 |
A powerful novel of a man’s journey to discover the truth of an old family tragedy. ( )
  zenosbooks | Feb 25, 2009 |
Thank god I was required to read this amazing book for a class one year; yet few others appear to have made a similar discovery. Amazingly threaded narratives and plot, rich with historical detail, reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. more on the author- which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1982. His story, inspired in part by the real-life discovery of the graves of a group of runaway slaves on a farm near Chaneysville in Bedford County, PA, where Bradley was born, also received an Academy Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. I suppose I should read South Street, wish he would write more. ( )
  creativreaders | Mar 4, 2007 |
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For Mr. Dan and Uncle John, the storytellers; for Mama, the historian; and for Dearie Dadn, alias Pop, who was both.
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Sometimes you can hear the wire, hear it reaching out across the miles; whining with its own weight, crying from the cold, panting at the distance, humming with the phantom sounds of someone else's conversation.
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