Easter Lilly: A Novel of the South Today

Overview

When a white man is found with a knife in his heart and his pants around his knees, all signs point to a black woman as the killer. Sure enough, Easter Lilly Odum doesn't deny doing the deed-but, she claims, it was either that or getting raped.

In a place where white is white, black is black, and the dead man is the brother of the county prosecutor, folks find this story hard to believe. Yet the clear fact is, Easter Lilly is knock-out beautiful, the sort of woman that men lose ...

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Werner, Honi (Jacket illustration and design by) 1998 Hard cover First edition. 1st printing. New in new dust jacket. Bottom edge short remainder mark. Unread. Slight cover ... shelf wear or soiling. Paper over boards. 304 p. Audience: General/trade. Fiction set in late 20th century American South, characters center on a "stunningly beautiful black woman" accused of killing a white man she reported was abolut to rape her. Author Tom Wicker had been a columnist for the New York Times, and an acclaimed author of both fiction and non-fiction. Read more Show Less

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Overview

When a white man is found with a knife in his heart and his pants around his knees, all signs point to a black woman as the killer. Sure enough, Easter Lilly Odum doesn't deny doing the deed-but, she claims, it was either that or getting raped.

In a place where white is white, black is black, and the dead man is the brother of the county prosecutor, folks find this story hard to believe. Yet the clear fact is, Easter Lilly is knock-out beautiful, the sort of woman that men lose their minds over-men such as Shep Riley, a New York civil rights lawyer. Riley aims to save Easter Lilly from Southern injustice, even when he is forced to admit that justice, like truth, is a pretty elusive thing.

Ingenious, its Southernness palpable, Easter Lilly will beguile and entertain at the same time that it tests the limits of our prejudices.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Subtitled "a novel of the south today," this overheated 10th work of fiction from historian and novelist Wicker The Kingpin; Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America doesn't quite live up to that promise. Set in the one-stoplight, one-taxi town of Waitsfield, somewhere off I-95, the action seems trapped in a time warp. Tough, beautiful, black Easter Lily Odum is accused of murdering jailer Ben Neely in her cell. Drawn by his hunger to provide justice, white attorney Shep Riley returns from Vermont to the South, where he once fought many a civil rights battle, to protect her from bloodthirsty prosecutor Tyree Neely, Ben's very powerful older brother. Interlacing lines of mostly unrequited attractionbetween Shep and his old-flame associate Meg McKinnon and between Tyree and Meg, Shep and Easter, to name only a fewmove the story along more than does the question of law: was the killing self-defense in the face of threatened rape? Yet, despite the sexual tension and Wicker's serviceable ear for dialogue, this stereotyped battle between mushmouthed rednecks and 1960s throwbacks is stagey and overwrought. Feb.
Kirkus Reviews
Justice, southern style, is the all-too-elusive goal in veteran columnist Wicker's tale of race, sex, and murder. When Jace Allman checks into his job as Stonewall County's daytime jailer, he finds nighttime jailer Ben Neely's Fairlane missing. That's because Easter Lilly Odum, awaiting trial for stealing a utility truck, has escaped from her cell and taken off with the car, having first stabbed Ben to death with his own Swiss Army knife. The locals laugh at the defense Easter Lilly offers when's she's capturedthat Ben was threatening her at knifepoint with rape. They know that Easter's jailbait past (even her grade-school teacher had to leave town to keep out of prison) makes her the world's least likely rape victim, and that Ben's brother Tyree, the county prosecutor, will call in every favor to pack and convince a receptive jury. What they don't know is that Easter's about to get some unexpected help from a white knight: W. Shepherd Riley, a dormant civil-rights lawyer who's been hibernating in Vermont till he reads about the case, charges back down south, and sweet-talks Meg McKinnon, his former partner and lover, into joining him. From here on in everything gets more complicatedShep and Meg promptly fall back into each other's arms; Shep realizes he'd like to do the same (and much, much more) with the client he's stolen away from a sozzled local defender; and the opposing attorney's prove each the other's equal in shameless courtroom posturing and underhanded legal maneuveringeven though, as in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Wicker's obvious model, there's less doubt about the facts of the case than about what those facts mean. An evocative parade of adulteries,betrayals, luncheonette meals, and slugs of Wild Turkey that doesn't produce many legal thrillsor, ultimately, the kind of moral complexity Wicker (Donovan's Wife, 1992; Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America, 1996, etc.) would like to claim.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688106287
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Wicker retired as a political columnist for The New York Times in 1991, having won numerous awards and accolades. Author of nine novels and five nonfiction books, he lives in New York City and Rochester, Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt

AT PRECISELY 6:55 A.M., JASON P. ALLMAN PARKED HIS TOYOTA pickup at a 90-degree angle to the Stonewall County jail, his front bumper just touching the cinder-block sidewall. He noticed im-mediately that Ben Neely's dent —fendered Fairlane was not in the lot, so Jase checked his watch to make sure he wasn't late. Be just like Ben, he thought, to take off and leave the jail unguarded if I'm a minute late.

Jase was right on schedule, however. Vague worry stirred in his mind. Usually, when he arrived for the daytime shift, he would be irritated to find Ben' s Fairlane catercorner across at least two park-ing spaces. Jase himself always parked carefully, not just in the jail lot but every where within the lined spaces, for instance, along Waitsfield's single downtown street or on the blacktopped expanse surrounding the Dixie Pride Shopping Mall.

Jase AlIman even parked with care in his own driveway, watchful of Ida Sue' s flower beds either in spring or when the weather turned so hot she let them go to weed. Jase never crossed the street against Waitsfield' s one stoplight; he saved grocery-store coupons from the weekly Stonewall News Messenger, and at bedtime he folded his blue jeans neatly over the back of a chair.

"Maw'd whop one of us boys good if we'd of left our britcheson the floor," Jase had explained to Ida Sue when in the first week of their marriage she'd asked him how come he was so neat. He knew by then that Ida Sue slept in the altogether her underwear in a pink heap by the bedside.

Out of the Toyota, leaned back in past the steering wheel, and picked up a flimsy cardboard tray that held a bag of sugar-glazed doughnuts and two black coffees from the KrispyKreme out at the mall. Holding one hand under the tray, he carefully closed the door with the other, admiring as always the ease with which the Toyota's latch caught.Confound laps had a way with fit'n finish. But American wheels gave a man more pickup on the interstates. He carried the tray carefully around the corner of the jail, wondering again where Ben Neely's Fairlane might be. If Ben hadn't shown up the night before, Jase would've heard about it from Rob Moore at 11 P.M., asking where was his relief. As if Jase would know and Ida Sue wouldn't mind being woke up.

Living by his lonesome out at the Neely place, what was left of Ben's daddy's old farm, Ben Neely always drove in for the graveyard shift. Prob'ly what happened this time, Jase speculated, Ben let some girl drive'im — Ben's kind of girl, not too choosy who she rode with. Maybe let her use the Fairlane for the night, promise she'd pick up Ben in the morning.

Jase went up the two steps to the jail's front stoop, from which white pillars rose on either side. Like Mount Vernon. He pulled open a screen door that opened outward, and turned the knob on a heavy metal door that opened inward.

"Hot stuff!" he called out, stepping into the outer office, the cardboard tray held in front of him like an offering plate at the Neely Memorial Methodist Church. "Breakfast!"

Right away, even in the cheerful echoes of his voice, Jase knew something was wrong. Ben Neely should have been asleep or loung-ing with his feet up on the old wooden desk, Conway Twitty or Hank Williams,Jr., coming in from WCMH, We're Country Music Heaven, in Capital City.But the swivel chair behind the desk was empty and the tabletop radio was silent. The TV stared emptily down from the hospital mount that Ben Neely had cadged out of his big-shot brother Tyree — who was, among more important things, the county prosecutor. But that the TV was off didn't signify; TV would have gone off the air hours ago, after "The Star-Spangled Banner," and would not be available again until 7 A.M.

''Ben?''

The name rang back at Jase from the sheetrock that hid the inside of the cinder-block walls. He put the cardboard tray on the desk, leaned over and looked down at the floor, half expecting to find Ben Neely stretched out and sleeping it off. But Ben was not there.

Took off with the confound broad in the Fairlane, Jase figured. He did not know which woman, or even if there had been one, but the absence of both Ben and the car suggested the simple an-swer. Everybody knew Ben Neely was a chaser. Like Ida Sue said, Benjy had had wandering-hands trouble all the way back to high school-Ida Sue winking at Jase when she said it, good as telling him she had plenty of reason to know.

Anger flickered briefly in Jason P. Allman's usually placid heart —not about Ben Neely feeling up Ida Sue in high school, but because Jase Allman had been left to explain Ben's absence to Tyree Neely. Then anger was replaced by concern. Tyree, after all, had made it clear that he was leaving his brother Ben in Jase Allman's hands. So Jase regarded Ben Neely as a project, unwelcome maybe, but kind of like weaning Ida Sue off her usual can of Coors before bed, Ida Sue putting on a tad around the middle.

Ben Neely had seen, moreover, to be coming along okay. Off the sauce, at work on time, staying out of trouble. Not even hanging out at Aiken's pool hall or the Purity Cafi. But now this.

Copyright ) 1998 Tom Wicker

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First Chapter

JASE

AT PRECISELY 6:55 A.M., JASON P. ALLMAN PARKED HIS TOYOTA pickup at a 90-degree angle to the Stonewall County jail, his front bumper just touching the cinder-block sidewall. He noticed immediately that Ben Neely's dent-fendered Fairlane was not in the lot, so Jase checked his watch to make sure he wasn't late. Be just like Ben, he thought, to take off and leave the jail unguarded if I'm a minute late.

Jase was right on schedule, however. Vague worry stirred in his mind. Usually, when he arrived for the daytime shift, he would be irritated to find Ben's Fairlane catercorner across at least two parking spaces. Jase himself always parked carefully, not just in the jail lot but everywhere--within the lined spaces, for instance, along Waitsfield's single downtown street or on the blacktopped expanse surrounding the Dixie Pride Shopping Mall.

Jase Allman even parked with care in his own driveway, watchful of Ida Sue's flower beds either in spring or when the weather turned so hot she let them go to weed. Jase never crossed the street against Waitsfield's one stoplight; he saved grocery-store coupons from the weekly Stonewall News-Messenger, and at bedtime he folded his blue jeans neatly over the back of a chair.

"Maw'd whop one of us boys good if we'd of left our britches on the floor," Jase had explained to Ida Sue when in the first week of their marriage she'd asked him how come he was so neat. He knew by then that Ida Sue slept in the altogether her underwear in a pink heap by the bedside.

Jase got out of the Toyota, leaned back in past the steering wheel, and picked up a flimsy cardboard tray that held a bag of sugar-glazed doughnuts and two black coffees from the Krispy Kreme out at the mall. Holding one hand under the tray, he carefully closed the door with the other, admiring as always the ease with which the Toyota's latch caught.

Confound Japs had a way with fit'n finish. But American wheels gave a man more pickup on the interstates.

He carried the tray carefully around the corner of the jail, wondering again where Ben Neely's Fairlane might be. If Ben hadn't shown up the night before, Jase would've heard about it from Rob Moore at 11 P.M., asking where was his relief. As if Jase would know and Ida Sue wouldn't mind being woke up.

Living by his lonesome out at the Neely place, what was left of Ben's daddy's old farm, Ben Neely always drove in for the graveyard shift. Prob'ly what happened this time, Jase speculated, Ben let some girl drive'im--Ben's kind of girl, not too choosy who she rode with. Maybe let her use the Fairlane for the night, promise she'd pick up Ben in the morning.

Jase went up the two steps to the jail's front stoop, from which white pillars rose on either side. Like Mount Vernon. He pulled open a screen door that opened outward, and turned the knob on a heavy metal door that opened inward.

"Hot stuff!" he called out, stepping into the outer office, the cardboard tray held in front of him like an offering plate at the Neely Memorial Methodist Church. "Breakfast!"

Right away, even in the cheerful echoes of his voice, Jase knew something was wrong. Ben Neely should have been asleep or lounging with his feet up on the old wooden desk, Conway Twitty or Hank Williams, Jr., coming in from WCMH, We're Country Music Heaven, in Capital City. But the swivel chair behind the desk was empty and the tabletop radio was silent. The TV stared emptily down from the hospital mount that Ben Neely had cadged out of his big-shot brother Tyree--who was, among more important things, the county prosecutor. But that the TV was off didn't signify; TV would have gone off the air hours ago, after "The Star-Spangled Banner," and would not be available again until 7 A.M.

"Ben?"

The name rang back at Jase from the sheetrock that hid the inside of the cinder-block walls. He put the cardboard tray on the desk, leaned over and looked down at the floor, half expecting to find Ben Neely stretched out and sleeping it off. But Ben was not there.

Took off with the confound broad in the Fairlane, Jase figured. He did not know which woman, or even if there had been one, but the absence of both Ben and the car suggested the simple answer. Everybody knew Ben Neely was a chaser. Like Ida Sue said, Benjy had had wandering-hands trouble all the way back to high school--Ida Sue winking at Jase when she said it, good as telling him she had plenty of reason to know.

Anger flickered briefly in Jason P. Allman's usually placid heart--not about Ben Neely feeling up Ida Sue in high school, but because Jase Allman had been left to explain Ben's absence to Tyree Neely. Then anger was replaced by concern. Tyree, after all, had made it clear that he was leaving his brother Ben in Jase Allman's hands. So Jase regarded Ben Neely as a project, unwelcome maybe, but kind of like weaning Ida Sue off her usual can of Coors before bed, Ida Sue putting on a tad around the middle.

Ben Neely had seemed, moreover, to be coming along okay. Off the sauce, at work on time, staying out of trouble. Not even hanging out at Aiken's pool hall or the Purity Cafe. But now this.

Tyree Neely had dropped by the jailhouse the first morning after Ben had worked the eleven-to-seven:

"Jase, you recollect when old Sheriff Hobson decided he didn't need a deputy named Jase Allman that knew too much how a man could live like an English duke on seven thousand a year?"

"I thought Ida Sue'd leave me for sure," Jase had said. "She find out I'm outten a job."

"And you know who located the right man to whip Hobson's ass the next election, don't you?"

Jase was not sure how far he could go. "They tell me was the same man put up Tug Johnson's campaign money."

Everybody knew that when Tyree Neely caught a cold, Sheriff Tug Johnson sneezed, coughed, and went to bed. But even having said the obvious, Jase watched Tyree Neely's deceptively warm blue eyes for a sign that it might have been too much or too little. He saw nothing and Tyree went on, in the quiet, almost hesitant way that always put Jase in mind of a cat stalking a bird in the weeds.

"And I reckon you wouldn't forget who put you in as jailer at a nice salary and got this new jailhouse built for you to run."

Jase had been glad Ida Sue was not there to see his nose being rubbed in it.

"Course not."

He tried to sound neither insulted nor weak-kneed-both of which he feared he was. There was no sign in Tyree Neely's lean, tanned face or the set of his thin lips or the near whisper of his voice that he knew what Jase knew: I've got his balls in my pocket. Tyree would never let on anyway; Tyree was seldom obvious; but of course he did know.

"Now you're honorable as the day is long, Jase. So maybe it's not too far out of line, one good turn deserving another, I ask you to kindly keep an eye on Benjy?"

Despite the deferential tone of the request, Jase Allman had been appalled. He wanted no responsibility for Ben Tillman Neely, the black sheep of the family that had been Stonewall County's most dominant since practically forever. And he wanted no responsibility at all for which he would be accountable to Tyree Neely, any more than he already was--Tyree, who called most of the shots in Stonewall from the county prosecutor's office and kept strict account of the balance sheet.

"When he's on duty, I mean. Talk to'im some. Kind of keep'im straight. Benjy's not a bad kid, you get to know'im."

Not sober he ain't, Jase thought. Not chained up around anybody that wears a skirt.

"I wouldn't ask it of you," Tyree said, almost humbly, "if I didn't know you for a Christian man."

Jase was not deceived by the warm eyes or the soft voice or the humility. He did not even put much stock in Tyree Neely's well-known devotion to bird-watching. A birder, Tyree liked to call himself. Prowling around the woods with a pair of spyglasses and a Nikon strung around his neck.

Personally, Jase Allman saw nothing about birds to like, especially the way they'd dirty up his Toyota as soon as he hosed it down. As for Tyree Neely, if his eye was on the sparrow, in Jase Allman's opinion it was only to figure out a new way to get somebody's balls in his pocket.

Jase said, "I'll do what I can, Tyree. Doubt if it'll be much."

Tyree Neely rose and waved an arm expansively. "My daddy use to tell me, 'You got to get up early in the morning you want to find a better man than that oldest Allman boy.' "

He turned to leave but stopped at the door, looking back at Jase sitting at the old wooden desk. "Kind of set 'im an example, is all. Maybe ever now'n then, let me know how he's doing."

For just a moment, Jase wanted to tell Tyree to shove it: I ain't tattling on your little brother. But for just another moment, Jase hesitated, thinking of Ida Sue, knowing exactly how Tyree Neely would react to defiance--not hastily, not angrily, but certainly. And in that moment, Tyree went on out and down the steps between the Mount Vernon columns.

Jase had watched him, that morning, through the front window as Tyree moved along the sidewalk--a slender, brisk, erect man, in neat banker's gray, bareheaded, hair a little longer on the back of his neck than was customary in Stonewall County, waving to people on the street, not letting on in any way what he and they and Jase Allman knew perfectly well--that Tyree Neely just about owned the earth under all their feet, not by title but by the control he exercised over Stonewall County.

Some birder, Jase thought.

"Up yours, Boss," he said aloud, knowing it was too late. "I ain't tattling on your little brother." He listened with shame to his own words, hollow against the sheetrock.

Now, weeks later, Ben Neely and the Fairlane had disappeared, the Fairlane probably parked in front of a flyspeck motel, Ben pissed out of his mind, snoring like a diesel truck on I-95, some bare-ass floozy snitching his wallet from his pants on the floor. Splitting in the Fairlane.

Jase Allman shook his head, sighing. Hard to see how Tyree could hold him responsible for Ben going off the track with a bottle and a girl. Except that men who had power tended to see what they wanted to see--even with Tyree Neely's mild blue eyes. Jase knew he could be off the county payroll by sundown. No job, and Ida Sue a girl who could sink a week's pay in one cruise through the Dixie Pride Mall.

Even in his distress, however, Jase Allman was a prudent man. If he was going to be thrown out in the street, no job, maybe no Ida Sue in bed anymore in her birthday suit, it was not going to be for any fault of his. He'd make his regular morning check on the prisoners--this morning, only the one prisoner--before sounding the alarm for Ben Neely.

Jase leaned over the desk to take the cellblock key from its usual place in the middle drawer. It wasn't there. He looked quickly over his shoulder at the metal door with its single small window that separated the front office from the cellblock. With a shudder of horror, he saw what he should have noticed the second he had walked in:

The cellblock door was slightly ajar.

He hurried to it, dread rising like bile in his throat, sure of what he'd find inside the cellblock. He hardly had to look to see that Easter Lilly Odum's cell door stood wide open. The sight seemed to cement his feet to the floor. Thoughts tumbled through his head like clothes awash in Ida Sue's Maytag:

Never lost a prisoner before... that bitch looking like she could bite thew the bars... but even Ben wouldn't ...

Of course Ben Neely wouldn't. Jase knew it for sure--not that relief was in the knowledge. Was there still a Klan in Stonewall like in the old days, Ben Neely would have joined it sure as shooting, worn his robe down Main Street, grinning beneath the hood, maybe calling hisself a kleagle or some such crazy name. Made no bones how he disliked and distrusted the colored, Ben Neely didn't. Jase knew Ben'd sooner have took off with a billy goat beside him in the Fairlane than a woman black as the ace of spades. Even one with tits on her that'd stop a train....

This certainty at least released Jase from paralysis. He took four quick steps to the open cell. Then he saw it on the concrete floor, just as he'd imagined:

Ben Tillman Neely on his back, one arm outflung, his head pointed toward the tumbled cot along one wall of Easter Lilly's open cell, his slack feet in blue and white Nikes forming a sprawling V near the toilet in the corner. His uniform trousers and his polka-dot shorts down around his knees, his privates limp on one thigh.

Hung like a Jersey bull, Jase couldn't help but notice.

Ben's open eyes were rolled-up egg white in his skull. A dark stain had spread across his denim shirt and streaked the floor past his outstretched bloody hand and an upended three-legged stool, into the metal drain sunk in the center of the cell. From Ben's chest protruded the handle of the Swiss Army knife he had always carried in his hip pocket.

In the dim red light that barely lit the cellblock at night, the red handle looked almost black. And to Jase Allman it still seemed to quiver with what once had been the throbbing of Ben Neely's heart.

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