he buzz surrounding Lee Martin's stunning memoir, From Our House, left readers and critics alike eager to see what the author would do next. His first novel, Quakertown, a fictional retelling of an actual event in North Texas history, captures the bitterness, malice and emotional confusion found in two communities, one black and one white, during the reign of Jim Crow in the 1920s. Quakertown tells the haunting story of two childhood friends, Kizer and Camellia, separated by both race and class, who fall in love but can never publicly acknowledge their feelings because of the color barrier.
One of the novel's strengths is Martin's ability to re-create small town life with its easy pace, recognizable characters and picturesque locales. Kizer Bell is the son of the town banker, who is a distant father to his son, and an emotionally troubled mother, who likes to drink a bit too much. One of the causes of her drinking problem is Kizer's crippled left leg, a birth defect that plagues her with guilt.
When Martin turns his attention to the Jones family, the black counterpart to the Bells, his skills as a novelist allow him to capture the inner lives of Little, Eugie and Camellia Jones with the same pinpoint accuracy that he applies to other characters. Camellia is not a cardboard cut-out character, but a real woman harboring deep fears of isolation and loneliness. She worries that her wedding day will never come and that a career as an old maid schoolteacher is all that awaits her.
Throughout the novel, Martin reveals the high cost paid by those who dared to defy the strict code of segregation. Despite the risks, Camellia allows herself to fall in love with two men, both of whom could have a dire effect upon her and her family. Ike, her African-American love interest, is handsome, resourceful, outspoken and fearless in the face of white bigotry. Kizer is more fulfilling emotionally, but Camellia's affair with him, while thrilling, is taboo.
Martin skillfully plays out the dual romances of the shy, lovestruck teacher dangerously juggling the affections of men in a game no one can win. Still, it is the tenderness, compassion and emotional depth found in Martin's writing that makes this remarkable debut novel a pleasure to read. There are many lessons here about life, love, tolerance and family, as well as some glorious moments for anyone who appreciates fine storytelling.
Robert Fleming is a journalist in New York.