The first half of “The Rising Place,” by Mississippi author David Armstrong, is set in Mississippi during the Second World War, when the Deep South of sleepy county seats and dusty plantations was shaken by the outside world – new factories and new ideas and masses of unfamiliar young men in uniform. The second half is from the late 1940s, a period when women were still dealing with the losses of the war, and African Americans had begun to find a voice.
“When Emily Hodge died, I assumed I would be one of the few people at her funeral,” David Armstrong opens. “She had lived such a solitary life. She didn’t really seem like a loner, but that was before I learned about the murders and Miss Emily’s past.”
It takes flippant courage to open a Southern novel with that sort of insouciant nod at Mississippi’s most celebrated writer. It takes a different kind of bravado to follow that lead with the third sentence, shifting from Faulkner to film noir.
“The Rising Place” is narrated by a lawyer. A recent arrival in the Mississippi town of Hamilton, he is assigned to look after the affairs of Miss Emily Hodge, an elderly client of his law firm. Eventually, he becomes her executor. At her funeral, he notices a gray-haired man at the edge of the mourners – a stranger who takes one yellow rose from atop the bronze coffin and places it on the nearby grave marked “Baby Boy 1942.” After the funeral, clearing out Miss Emily’s effects, the narrator finds a brown sewing box of letters. Those letters supply the material for the novel.
The landscape of this book has something about it of Southern Gothic or Southern Romance. It is also a landscape of shrewd observation and irony. Hamilton is a place where being “old money” may mean that you actually have no money; where a young man teased for being a sissy may offer a cover story about seeking admission to West Point; where a daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy will torpedo her father’s plans to run for mayor; where a pretty young woman may have two wartime suitors and wind up with neither; where some losses are inflicted by history and some from within.
Occasionally, the epistolary nature of the book hits a limit. The shorter letters and the fictitious news clippings that accompany them ring true. The longer letters are not jottings or billets-doux or communications to a friend; they are slices of fiction. And yet the reader will keep reading.
Armstrong was born in Natchez (where he once served as mayor) and now lives in Columbus. He describes himself as a recovering lawyer. He is also a screenwriter, which means that readers of “The Rising Place” can view this story in the format of an independent film (“The Rising Place,” released in 2001) and read it in the form of a hardback edition published in 2005.
“The Rising Place” counts as historical fiction. It explores the same era as John Grisham’s novel “The Reckoning.” As we look ahead to the third decade of this new century, it is good to Southern writers turn to a past that is within living memory and that is overshadowed by a different war.
“The Rising Place.” By David Armstrong. Wild Rose Press. 187 pages. $13.99 (paperback).
Allen D. Boyer is Book Editor of HottyToddy.com. A native of Oxford, he is the author of “Rocky Boyer’s War: An Unvarnished History of the Air Blitz That Won the War in the Southwest Pacific,” based on the Pacific War diary of his father (Naval Institute Press).