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Easter Lilly: A Novel of the South Today

Easter Lilly: A Novel of the South Today

by Tom Wicker

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


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.

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.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.16(d)

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.


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

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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