Janis Owens’ Southern Gothic American Ghost is equal parts mystery and thriller, populated with slippery characters inhabiting a backwoods swampland hamlet forever haunted by a Depression-era lynching. Indeed, Owens based her fourth novel on the infamous 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida. Still, while the novel is rooted in a real-life incident, it remains a pure work of fiction in the best sense: a rich portrayal of a small town where the lines between black and white become blurred—not only in regard to race, but in the Hendrix code of honor, too.
Readers are taken through this mesmerizing tale by its teenage heroine, Jolie Hoyt, who, like Owens, is the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. When the story begins, Jolie appears destined for a sad, small life punctuated by poverty and hopelessness in her hardscrabble hometown of Hendrix, Florida—until she falls hard for a visiting anthropology student, Sam Lense. Hailing from a Jewish family in Miami that holds its own bitter secrets, Sam claims to be researching the history of Hendrix’s indigenous Indian tribes, but his true agenda is far more personal, and hinges on the town’s racist past. When the couple’s hasty, albeit heartfelt, engagement is shattered by violence, the young lovers are torn asunder.
Still, the heart of the story is the decades-old lynching, which remains incendiary for survivors on both sides. Owens writes powerfully of Jolie’s epiphany as to the magnitude of the horrors that continue to haunt her hometown: “In the darkness she could imagine it precisely: the tree and the dust, the press of the crowd and the shouting. If she closed her eyes, she could almost smell the stink of the slaughterhouse—the blood and skin and rot of decomposition that Kite must have foreseen himself, being raised on a farm.”
Despite its dark subject matter, the novel is infused with light and hope—no small feat, given that the novel gracefully weaves everything from anti-Semitism and hate crimes to first love and family loyalties into the story. American Ghost is sure to resonate with readers long after its stunning final pages.