“The World Had Gone Stark Raving Mad”:
A Review of Lightningstruck by Ashley Mace Havird (Mercer University Press, 2016).
In her acknowledgments for this 2015 winner of the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, Ashley Havird explains her goal in Lightningstruck was “to recreate as honestly as ... [she] could a particular time and place”: 1964 rural South Carolina. To that end, Havird avails herself of her own childhood memories, her father’s experiences, and the points of view of her brother and a friend, as well as fairly extensive historical research for “factual and anecdotal material.” She uses these non-fictional sources as the ground of this engaging coming-of-age fiction. Her “time and place” are seen through the eyes of Henrietta (Etta) McDaniel, an eleven-year-old whose hero and role model is Heinrich Schliemann, the German 19th-century archaeologist who discovered the site of ancient Troy.
So, does Havird achieve her stated goal? Yes…and no. Yes, because Havird’s portrait 1964 South Carolina is a vivid and multi-layered one. No, because any historical portrait of a time and place must necessarily be incomplete, biased by the narrator’s (and the writer’s) particular positioning, at best “seen through a glass darkly.”
Etta is a sympathetic narrator, to be sure, and the tale is necessarily the coming-of-age story of a precocious, questioning, ambitious young girl (I mean, how many eleven-year-old girls seek to emulate Heinrich Schliemann?) whose life has been shaped by her time and place, by the people who love her, most notably her grandfather who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (though, of course, without that diagnostic label existing at the time) and her African American nanny, Cleo.
Etta’s narration includes reports from afar of the burgeoning civil rights movement, or, more accurately, of a few of the headline stories of the violent resistance to that movement in the deep south — the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June 1964 and the deaths of four black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African American church, in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. These distant events come home to Etta even more forcefully when the local KKK burns a cross outside Cass’s home and assaults Cleo. Etta sees well-known neighbors revealed as violent racists. These events, more than the literal lightning that hits her horse, Troy, serve as the catalyst for Etta’s loss of innocence.
Lightningstruck paints compelling portraits of this specific time and place and of Etta’s eleven-year-old psychology. Her day-to-day penchant for magical realism is both amusing and convincing as a way of entering into the complexities of this curious, intelligent, and compassionate child’s world.
Reviewed by Michael McClure
Michael Francis McClure is an
Associate Professor of English at
Virginia State University.
One of the editors of NOLA DIASPORA,
he has also co-authored an apocalyptic novel, 2020, with Scott A. Leonard.
Their nom de plume is Frank McArthur.