It's 1898 and the "colored" population of Lexington, Kentucky, is trying to cross the boundaries imposed by newly legalized Jim Crow laws while holding onto rights won in the Civil War. We follow the struggle for rights and dignity through the eyes of multiple narrators, especially Noah Webster, the young aide to Robert O'Hara Benjamin (editor, lawyer, sometimes preacher, and social justice advocate.) We also see the struggle through the eyes of Maria Lulu, Benjamin's young wife, who joins the historic campaign for women's rights. Other narrators include Jake the bartender, Judge Frank Bullock (son of a member of Morgan's Raider's,) and even Noah's mamma.
Black and women's rights intertwine in unexpected ways through a wide spectrum of life in turn-of-the-century Fayette County, Kentucky. We move from raucous and dangerous saloons to horse-racing where black jockeys are driven from the sport, to rural black schools, turbulent neighborhoods of the slums of Lexington, and the halls and chambers of the Fayette County Courthouse. Race boundaries are crossed as sometimes our heroes are joined by whites of extraordinary good will, such as prominent social workers struggling to overcome part of their racist upbringing.
For this is Lexington, Kentucky, a border state where borders--even racist borders--sometimes get crossed, and where faith that things will get better somehow still survives. Racism runs deep, but so does the determination of the characters here within A Wounded Snake.
About the Author
Joseph G. Anthony moved from Manhattan's Upper West Side to Hazard, Kentucky in 1980. Anthony, an English professor for 35 years, regularly contributes essays and poems to anthologies, including a poem and story in Kentucky's Twelve Days of Christmas.
His most recent novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press) was described by the Lexington Herald-Leader as "masterfully written and well grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms [exploring] race, class, relationship and the potential for change."
His previous books include two short story collections, Camden Blues and Bluegrass Funeral plus two novels--Peril, Kentucky, and Pickering's Mountain. Appalachian Heritage's said of Pickering that :"Anthony balances multiple voices with restraint…[he makes] us feel for their individual pain and sorrow, their prejudice and greed and lack of guile and fully-realized humanity."
Anthony lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife of forty years, Elise Mandel. They have three grown children.
Read an Excerpt
It is challenging to write a novel based on so much historical fact. A Wounded Snake blends accurate historical data--the killing of Robert O'Hara Benjamin--with imagined responses: the rest in the church on the way home. It does the same with the school "riots" in Cadentown which did take place. The women were arrested on Judge Frank Bullock's orders under the infamous KKK law. However, all of the circumstances around that disturbance have been imagined. Judge Frank Bullock was a real figure who both presided over Mike Moynahan's pre-trial and released him and did rule in favor of hundreds of challenged black voters. And bullets did come from his windows in 1920 at the Will Lockett race riot. He was even accused of shooting them himself though the explanation of soldiers posted in his office was finally accepted.
Much of the novel's perspective is shared by completely fictional characters such as Noah Webster, Lizzie Price, Jake the Bartender, Mamma, or a real-life figure, Maria Lulu Benjamin, whom we know nothing about except that she was married to Benjamin, had two children, and went home to Alabama to die. Even the historic characters such as Billy Klair, Judge Bullock, and even Robert O'Hara Benjamin, are in great deal my novelistic creations. These characters talk of real things, notably the treatment of black jockeys and their removal from the sport they once completely dominated. They get into real fights such as the one over the approaches to black education as espoused by Booker T. Washington and W.E. Dubois.
The long struggle in Kentucky over women's suffrage took on a local character as the limited franchise for school board elections and its repeal (initiated by real-life Billy Klair) has both fictional and historical accuracy. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge's role in that struggle and her perceived racism are still a topic of great debate. The novel's characters express their own judgment.
I have tried to be faithful to my reading of history even as I let my novelist's imagination create and extend drama. The snake of racism took different form in Kentucky, a border state, than it did further south or further north. Sometimes that racism took on a virulent and violent form as some characters' use of the N word demonstrates. Often, though, that racism was more subtle and "polite" but nevertheless accomplished the work of exclusion and debasement.
The wish to make real and current that historic struggle to cross the borders set by race, gender, class, is the main objective of my fictionalized story. I hope I have told it well.