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Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith

Strange Fruit (1944)

by Lillian Smith

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Published in 1944, this novel is set sometime after the end of WWI, in a small town in Georgia. As the title suggests, racial tensions are its principal theme, and no happy ending should be expected. It is a remarkable book, more for its nuanced exploration of individuals and their relationships than for any sensational effect the too familiar events related in it might have. I suspect in 1944, however, that might not have been the case. Not surprisingly, the book was banned in Boston and other places, and was even forbidden to be mailed through the U.S. Post Office until Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded her husband to lift that ban. The tale of inter-racial love between an educated black woman and a white man was incendiary then, and although that relationship precipitates much of the action, it strikes me that it is merely a catalyst, and not where the reader should focus. I had minimal sympathy for Nonnie, who despite her Spelman education (gained, we understand, through heavy sacrifices of her parents, who managed to send all three of their children to college) has chosen to return to Maxwell, Georgia, and life as a nanny for a disabled white child, apparently so that she can remain near Tracy Deen, a privileged young man with no gumption, no ability to think for himself, and nothing to offer her but stolen moments in an abandoned house or behind the arbor. The two have a long history, as Tracy saved Nonnie from an assault by another white boy when she was just a child; the other boy immediately backed off, stating “I didn’t know she was yourn”, which Tracy hotly denied, asserting “She’s not that kind”. That one instinctively decent act shows us Tracy’s potential, but it is never realized as he grows into a shiftless, wishy-washy ne'er-do-well who can think of nothing better to do years later when Nonnie inevitably becomes pregnant with his child, than to pay an equally worthless black man to marry her, while he gives an engagement ring to the girl his family has long expected him to marry. The tragedy that ensues from all of this isn’t hard to imagine, but it’s the side and back stories of the various people involved that make the novel worth reading. There are vague hints at incest, and unrecognized homosexual longings. There are men struggling to do the right thing, women desperately trying to keep their children alive and out of trouble, and "good Christians" placing all the blame for society's ills on Satan. It’s a multi-faceted look at human nature in difficult times, and we don’t come off well at all.

Lillian Smith was a crusader for change in her native South, supporting the civil rights movement, running a progressive camp for girls, and publishing a liberal magazine with her significant other, Paula Snelling. Although many people assumed the title of the novel was taken from the song of the same name by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)--an assumption backed by Billie Holiday’s assertion in her autobiography---Smith stated that “strange fruit” referred to the "damaged, twisted people (both black and white) who are the products or results of our racist culture.” In either case, the wrenching lyrics of the song are absolutely appropriate to the book.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Strange Fruit lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc ( )
2 vote laytonwoman3rd | Jan 13, 2019 |
I was toatlly in harmony with the views expressed in this book. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jun 3, 2013 |
When marriage between races was uncommon, even illegal in some states, this book was a shocker for some. It is now a classic. 2012 ...I have recently reread this book and found it to be very different from what I had remembered. I was much younger when I read it and segregation was still the law many places. I remembered it as a frustrated rather idyllic romance between a beautiful black girl and a socially well placed white boy. Rereading it I discovered these characters were really not important and neither very romantic. In fact the story was about the town, the two parts oft the town and the effect of race on the entire community.Smith is very much in the company of southern women writers like Flannery O'Conner, ( )
  carterchristian1 | Apr 28, 2009 |
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She stood at the gate, waiting; behind her the swamp, in front of her Colored Town, beyond it, all Maxwell.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156856360, Paperback)

When it was first published in 1944, this novel sparked immediate controversy and became a huge bestseller. It captured with devastating accuracy the deep-seated racial conflicts of a tightly knit southern town. The book is as engrossing and incendiary now as the day it was written.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:28 -0400)

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