Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Chaneysville Incident by John Bradley

I read a lot of books, and sometimes even manage to comment about them here. More often that not, I enjoy most of the books I post about. This is probably because (admittedly) I look for books by authors I already know or that I have an inkling -- from word of mouth or reviews -- that I'll enjoy.

Still, you never know when you're going to read a book that you really like or that makes others pale in comparison. The Chaneysville Incident is such a novel.

I came to read The Chaneysville Incident after asking for suggestions for a big book for my long flights to and from Japan. One of my work colleagues suggested it, and though I'd never heard of it or author John Bradley, I decided to give it a try.

I'm really glad I did. On the surface, the novel is a well-honed and affecting story of historian John Washington's attempt to discover what happened to thirteen runaway slaves in Chaneysville, Pennsylvania. The protagonist's efforts to reconstruct the past elevate the narrative, through various rhetorical devices and an interesting contrast that plays out throughout the novel between historical detachment and historical discovery and recreation.

Googling the novel, I was surprised that the book has garnered only minimal praise and seems to have become almost forgotten. Certainly, as a novel of the black experience in America, I would rank The Chaneysville Incident alongside anything from the past forty years, including Morrison's Beloved or Song of Solomon.

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