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Tom and Son Jesus are two boys - one black and the other white - who have been mysteriously ordained at birth to spark the flames of change. Best friends, they spend their days daydreaming, fishing, and trying to escape work. But their fun abruptly comes to a halt when they discover a bone during a fanciful runaway. The bone turns out to be part of the skeletal remains of Son Jesus' long-missing father. Sheriff Frank Rucker, returned a hero from World War II, begins an investigation that unmasks a racially ...
Tom and Son Jesus are two boys - one black and the other white - who have been mysteriously ordained at birth to spark the flames of change. Best friends, they spend their days daydreaming, fishing, and trying to escape work. But their fun abruptly comes to a halt when they discover a bone during a fanciful runaway. The bone turns out to be part of the skeletal remains of Son Jesus' long-missing father. Sheriff Frank Rucker, returned a hero from World War II, begins an investigation that unmasks a racially motivated killer known only as Pegleg. The search for truth divides the people of Overton County, forcing a surprising conclusion - or the beginning of justice.
In the small town of Crossover, events have generally abided by Logan's Law—the invention of Logan, a former sheriff who spoke of the "law of the way things are." But it's now the late '40s, when the minds of many townspeople have been broadened by their war experiences, and the new sheriff, Frank, is more interested in justice than tradition. Events are set into motion when two 12-year-olds—Son Jesus, mature, mathematically gifted, and black; and Tom, imaginative, prankish, and white—try to run away from home. As they make their way downriver, self-consciously reenacting Huck's and Jim's roles, they stumble upon human bones buried in an old sawmill. The boys are eventually tracked down and returned to their families, but the bones turn out to belong to Son Jesus' father, who's been missing for a few years—one victim of three racially motivated murders committed, according to longstanding rumor, by a masked man known as Pegleg. As Frank investigates, he finds himself becoming enamored of the pretty young widow, Evelyn Carnes, on whose property the father was found and whose deceased husband may have had a role in the deaths. Meanwhile, Frank's dogged inquiries polarize racial sentiments in Crossover, testing the friendship of Tom and Son Jesus as they approach the end of childhood. The situation reaches a crisis when a local bully, Harlan, is accused of raping Son Jesus' sister Remona, and, shortly after, is found dead, an uncle of Son Jesus a prime suspect.
Gracefully written, though the disjointed story, borrowing from such tales of childhood and race as To Kill a Mockingbird to Huckleberry Finn, never really gathers the momentum it should.
His family called him a runaway, and Tom guessed that he was.
He did leave ho me a lot, and if leaving home was running away, well, yes, he was a runaway. But he never went far, and someone always found him, which was easy enough since he usually stood around waiting for someone to show up.
And if he had to tell the truth, Tom would confess that part of the reason he ran away was that he knew someone would always find him. It was like hide-and-seek, but better. He played hide-and-seek only with Son Jesus and, sometimes, with Elly, when Elly thought he needed attention. But Son Jesus and Elly gave up too easily. Especially Son Jesus. Son Jesus wouldn't look for more than a minute before quitting the game. He would call out, "Where you at, Thomas? I give up." And Tom would come out of hiding, declaring victory over Son Jesus, and that, too, was aggravating; Son Jesus didn't care if he lost to Tom. Playing the game was enough. Besides, Son Jesus believed that with Tom, whatever happened between them was meant to be. "It's done been planned," his mother, Reba, had preached. "Ain't nothing nobody can do about it."
Few people believed Reba. They thought she was simply a yammering religious lunatic who did not know a vision from a headache.
But Son Jesus believed her. And Tom believed her.
They had reason to believe.
The story of Conjure Woman's nightlong walk from Softwind to Crossover was part of their heritage. Conjure Woman had proclaimed that her hand was on Son Jesus, and she had whispered to Reba, "There be a white boy too. They be bound. They make the change."
When she learned of the coincidence of timing'in the births of Son Jesus and Tom, Reba accepted what Conjure Woman was telling herthat it was a sign, that God had a plan. It had to be, she reasoned. She did not understand it, did not know what was meant by being bound, or by making the change, but she did not have to understand it; she only had to believe it.
To Tom and Son Jesus, hearing the story many times from Reba, it meant they were special, and being special was worth more than hidden treasure.
The first time Tom ran away from home was on a September afternoon in 1944. He was seven years old. It was a high-sky day of bleached blue, a cloudless, airless day of heat blistering the earth, a day that smelled of cooking topsoil and of cotton drying on weighing sheets where it had been piled by the pickers. Tom had been eager about the picking. He had said to his father and mother, "Lots of cotton out there. Can't we start picking it?" And finally his father had said, "Well, I guess we can," and he had led Tom and Troy and Miriam and Elly into the field. Tom had picked for a half hour before wandering off to play. "Damn it, Troy had muttered to Miriam and Elly. "Can't wait to get us out here, and then he takes off to lay around on his lazy little butt."
Tom was sitting on a sheet of the cotton that had been pulled under the shade of an oak tree beside the road. A book was open in his lap. The name of the book was The Gingerbread Boy. Elly had brought it to the field from the house after lunch. Tom had read it a hundred times, he guessed, but he read it again because Elly mothered him and he knew it would please Elly.
Son Jesus was beside Tom, buried in the cotton, playing with four large maypops fashioned into play soldiers, with stick arms and stick legs. From the back of his throat, he was making the rat-tat-tat sound of a machine gun followed by the pinging of bullets hitting rocks.
Tom watched Son Jesus with disinterest, then brushed a fly away from his face and stared across the field at the pickers. His brother, Troy, who was fifteen, was working furiously, crawling on his knees between two rows, picking both. Miriam and Elly were near him, each picking from one row. Miriam was thirteen; Elly, eleven. Farther back was Reba and her two daughters, Cecily, who was fourteen, and Remona, who was twelve. Reba lived with her children in a crowded tenant house on Harlan Davis's farm, but they did not sharecrop, not since the murder of Rody Martin a year earlier. They worked as maids for Harlan Davis's wife, Alice, and for other white women, or as hired hands for fieldwork. No one had ever been arrested for Rody Martin's murder, though everyone knew the killer was a mysterious man who was known only as Pegleg.
Hack Winter was not in the field. Earlier, he had hitched the mules to the wagon and had driven away to the cotton gin with a wagonful of cotton.
"Keep picking," Hack had said to Troy. "See if we can't get another bale done by tomorrow morning."
"Yes sir," Troy had replied. "We'll keep at it."
Tom hated it when Troy was left with the responsibility for work. Troy was too bossy. His father could get irritated, but his father never raged. Tom rolled 'in the cotton and made a pillow for his head. He imagined his father at the cotton gin, waiting his turn for the great vacuum to suck the cotton out of the wagon and spit it 'into the machinery that stripped the lint from the seed. His father would be drinking a Coca-Cola, cold as ice, from the ice-packed drink box, He would be drinking his Coca-Cola and listening to the stories of the men who waited in line for the ginning.