Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about a secretive group that’s a natural fit with the thriller novel. And I’m sure you could think of plenty of examples. Let’s see how that fit works with a most unusual secretive group, and turn today’s spotlight on Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres.
As the novel begins, attorney Martin Grey is prosecuting a major civil rights lawsuit against a large corporation, Autostone Industries. He’s got a strong case, but he’s up against Damon Darrell, one of the shrewdest, most skilled, and most successful attorneys in the business. Like Grey, Darrell is black. It’s a bit of a ‘David and Goliath’ situation, but Grey is no slouch, and he wins the case. To Grey’s shock, Darrell stops by his law office later to offer congratulations and to invite Grey and his wife, Anna, to dinner. Surprised, but intrigued, Grey and Anna accept.
At the dinner, Darrell introduces the Greys to some of his friends, all very powerful and successful black men and their wives. That dinner is the beginning of what feels like a ‘vetting’ of Grey. The group members appear to be pleased with what they find, and Grey is flattered by their attention. Before long, he seems to be accepted as ‘one of them,’ and that means all sorts of perks (including Stevie Wonder concert tickets and a chance to meet the superstar). Grey’s white partner, Glen Grossman, is a bit put out by the fact that he’s excluded from the group, but Grey is drawn in. Among many other things, membership in this group could mean all sorts of career and other advantages.
Then, Grey is invited to join Darrell and the rest of the group for a whitewater rafting trip. He’s not the ‘outdoorsy’ type, and Anna is more than a little concerned about him going. But he also sees that if he refuses, he won’t be ‘one of the group.’ So, he accepts the invitation. As he’s relaxing on the luxury flight, Grey becomes aware that the flight isn’t heading to the state of Washington, as he was told. It’s going in another direction completely.
Soon after Grey and the rest of the group arrive at their destination, he begins to learn what’s really going on. It’s a cult-like group under the leadership of the enigmatic Dr. Kasim. He is deeply committed to avenging the awful cruelties done to blacks at the hands of whites. In fact, the title of the novel, Forty Acres, comes from a promise made to former slaves (that they would each get forty acres and a mule), and later rescinded. Dr. Kasim wants to get revenge, and he has his own way of doing so.
Once Grey learns the truth, he faces some wrenching moral decisions. On the one hand, he is a successful, liberal, black man who’s done well. He doesn’t bear personal animus against particular whites, and he sees the awfulness of slavery as something from the past. On the other hand, he is a black man. The scars of slavery and the injustice that goes with it run very deep, and Grey learns, to his discomfiture, that he feels those scars. Certainly, he understands Dr. Kasim’s anger. The dilemmas Grey faces lead to some very frightening and dangerous places. He’s going to have to work quickly and very skillfully if he’s going to survive.
In the meantime, Anna is facing her own challenges. She’s a successful emergency-room nurse, and an intelligent person. While she’s confident, and hardly timid, she’s not in the same proverbial financial league as the wives of her husband’s new friends. Yet, she knows that if she doesn’t fit in, that could hurt Martin’s chances of success. Among the wives, there’s a lot of discussion of shopping, manicures, travel, and fine restaurants. Is that all there is these women? If not, what might they really be like? And then, Anna makes a discovery that sparks her own concerns about her husband’s welfare…
This is a thriller, so there are several elements of that sub-genre in the novel. Especially later in the story, there are narrow escapes, real suspense, and life-threatening danger. There’s also the issue of disbelief. For instance, could we really expect a group of highly intelligent, successful people to fall under the spell of someone like Dr. Kasim?
The thriller elements are used to raise some deeper questions, and they, too, are elements in the novel. One of them is the issue of how deeply slavery still impacts people in the modern world. There is real and understandable anger at the brutality of slavery, and the question of how to address that is an important one. On the one hand, do we hold today’s white people responsible for something that happened hundreds of years ago? On the other, don’t white people continue to benefit from white privilege? And haven’t they benefited for generations from the work of enslaved blacks, and later, from racial inequity? It’s not an easy set of questions, and readers who like moral ambiguity and deep moral dilemmas will appreciate that point.
There is violence in the novel, some of it truly ugly and ‘on stage.’ Readers who dislike that sort of violence will want to know this. The same is true for the use of language. Everyone has a different ‘barometer’ for how much violence and explicit language are ‘too much.’ On that level, this isn’t an easy book to read. But then, its themes aren’t easy to read and consider, either. Readers who enjoy books that invite reflection will appreciate that.
Forty Acres is an uncompromising look at the lasting impact of slavery. It’s set in a thriller context, but raises uncomfortable, more reflective, questions about that impact. Caught in it all is a successful black attorney who has to take a look at a side of himself that perhaps he doesn’t want to see. But what’s your view? Have you read Forty Acres? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 14 May/Tuesday, 15 May – Silent Scream – Angela Marson
Monday, 21 May/Tuesday, 22 May – A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee
Monday, 29 May/Tuesday, 30 May – Into the Shadows – Shirley Wells