Friday, 20 March 2015

Kingsblood Royal - Sinclair Lewis

I was born the year this book was written - 1947.  I grew up knowing nothing about prejudices;  my parents never discussed any kind of hatred of others, just that there were good and bad in all countries in all walks of life.  And my lovely Mum expressed that with "there are good people in prison and bad people outside".  I remember newsreel from America about segregation of white and black, and about the repeal of segregation laws by John Kennedy.  I remember newsreel of the Detroit riots in 1967.   But I didn't understand why anyone would want to beat anyone so badly because their skin was a different colour.  Still don't.

This book was a stunner in the way a spade over the back of your head would stun you.  Neil Kingsblood, the son of  a decent man, works for a bank, after returning from WW2 in Europe with a limp.  He's married to the daughter of a decent man too, and they have a small child, and a black maid.  It's not very long before you realise that race is going to raise it's ugly head - the little asides to each other in the maid's hearing, the taking of the spare key and entering of her own, private room to mock the cheapness and the untidyness.  And yet, and yet........ they are not cruel people, and they don't consider themselves racists. They just view "darkies" - and yes, there were many times when I winced a lot whilst reading just a page or two - as different, and not to be too worried about, because you can always dismiss one, and get another, can't you?  Of course you wouldn't want to get the porter on the train or the head waiter at the classy restaurant into trouble, you've known them for years, and they are charming, polite and part of your hometown scenery.

And then one day Neil's father tells him a family secret.  They are probably descended from Royal blood, Henry the Eighth of England no less.  Would Neil do some family research - for if this turns out to be true, their standing in society will be different altogether?  Neil does the research and finds that far from being descended from King Henry his great great grandfather was a black frontiersman, making him black too.   He's white, he looks white, he talks white, he behaves white.  But that 32nd share of his blood is black - and there is no going back.

The town he lives in is not in one of the Southern states of America.  He's on the Yankee side of the divide. Nevertheless, see how quickly bigotry can change the way people deal with you; how they see you.

The writing style shows its age:  in the reading of it, 1947 seems so far away.  The content is hard, cruel and believable.  I got this as a challenge to read a book the year I was born.  So glad I found it secondhand.  I believed it to be unobtainable, but no, you can get it in paperback.  I am not urging you to read this, but if like me you acquire it you may find it hard going for both both the writing style and the content.  But it will open your eyes and when another black man is beaten by police, or a black man is found hung (Mississippi today, 20 March 2015) You may find yourself thinking long and hard.

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You can find out more about the book here  and also and more about the author on Wikipedia.