Raised in the steamy bayous of New Orleans in the early 1900s, LeRoi "King" Tremain, caught up in his family's ongoing feud with the rival DuMont family, learns to fight. But when the teenage King mistakenly kills two white deputies during a botched raid on the DuMonts, the Tremains' fear of reprisal forces King to flee Louisiana.
King thus embarks on an adventure that first takes him to France, where he fights in World War I as a member of the segregated 369th Battalion—in the bigoted army he finds himself locked in combat with American soldiers as well as with Germans. When he returns to America, he battles the Mob in Jazz Age Harlem, the KKK in Louisiana, and crooked politicians trying to destroy a black township in Oklahoma.
King Tremain is driven by two principal forces: He wants to be treated with respect, and he wants to create a family dynasty much like the one he left behind in Louisiana. This is a stunning debut by novelist Guy Johnson that provides a true depiction of the lives of African-Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century.
About the Author
After completing college in Ghana, Guy Johnson managed a bar on Spain's Costa del Sol, ran a photo-safari service from London through Morocco and Algeria, and worked on oil rigs in Kuwait. Most recently he worked in the local government of Oakland, California, for more than twenty years. He lives in Oakland with his wife and son. He is the son of the author Maya Angelou.
Read an Excerpt
Wednesday, March 15, 1916
The thick, low-lying fog covered the contours and waterways of the swamp. Only mature trees and shrubs were visible above the milky gray mist. Darkness was beginning to fade in the early morning light, creating the surreal landscape of a nightmare.
Two men propelled a flat-bottomed skiff quietly over the water. There were oars in the boat, but favoring the method practiced by bayou dwellers, both men used long poles. Trees loomed above them through the mist like towering observers as they poled their way down the narrow channels that coursed through a system of small islands. The silence was broken only by the distant bellow of alligators and the soft, incessant buzzing of voracious mosquitoes.
The man in the front took his pole out of the water and listened for sounds ahead. He motioned for his companion to stop poling. Somewhere to the right of the boat, there was an indistinct sound of human voices. High overhead came the long screeches of a pair of cranes calling to each other. The man in the front of the skiff turned and began unwrapping an oilskin bundle, in which there lay two bolt-action rifles, a quiver of arrows, and a homemade longbow. He directed his companion by hand signals to continue poling toward their right.
LeRoi Tremain followed his uncle's directions and quietly poled closer to their quarry. They were heading toward a large channel that fed directly into the gulf. Stealth was of maximum importance. The fog began to dissipate in areas that were close to the open waterways where there was a tidal current. They could not be sure that the mist would afford the same level of protection once they entered the channel.
Uncle Jake motioned for him to stop poling again, and the boat floated quietly forward. Off to their left, somewhere above them, a man coughed. LeRoi put his pole into the water to prevent the boat from continuing out into the channel. If they had continued on, they would have been caught between their quarry and a lookout man. His uncle motioned for him to take the bow and pointed in the direction of the cough. Picking up the bow, LeRoi slid over the side into the dark, brackish water. Jake handed him the quiver and squeezed his arm encouragingly.
LeRoi turned and waded slowly into the opaque vapor. A cold glove of water surrounded him up to his navel. He had to be careful, for he was near the edge of the channel and the waist-high depth dropped away to twelve feet. There could be no splashing. He strung an arrow in his bow and continued forward. He did not know whether he would need the arrow for the man or an alligator, but he intended to be prepared.
The man he was looking for was probably up in one of the trees, which were looming as shadowy presences above him. Twenty feet further into the murkiness, he felt a breeze blowing and the beginnings of the current moving on his right. He was getting too close to the edge of the channel. He changed his direction to angle to his left and waded through a particularly dense patch. When he emerged, a large shadow spun and stood watching him. It was the largest swamp deer he had ever seen. Had he been hunting meat, he would have treasured this moment.
After determining that this intruder had no immediate hostile intention, the deer turned and moved away with a stately dignity. LeRoi needed something to draw the attention of the man in the tree, so he picked up a short, thick piece of branch and threw it hard at the disappearing flank of the deer. The branch hit the deer with a resounding whack and the deer took off at a dead run, splashing its way to safety.
LeRoi heard a surprised "What the hell?" and the chambering of a bullet in a lever-action rifle. As the deer ran away, he saw movement in a tree off to his right. The shadowy outline of a man holding a rifle could be seen about ten feet off the ground. Dropping down into the water until only his head was above its dark surface, LeRoi began his noiseless approach. He figured the man must be standing on some kind of hunting platform. He knew he could hit him from where he was, but he couldn't risk the man calling out. He had to move closer to be certain of a killing shot.
As he moved nearer, he saw that there was a small dinghy moored to the trunk of the tree. In the surreal landscape of gray and white vapor under the trees' overhanging shadowy presences, only the boat had movement as the pull of the current caused it to bump against projecting roots. The man had resumed his stillness and had attempted to hide himself once more. LeRoi could not see the man clearly, but he knew where his chest was because he could see his arm. He was no more than thirty feet away. When he rose out of the water, the bow was already stretched taut with an arrow. The bow had a sweet, bass twang as the arrow was loosed.
LeRoi heard a soft thud and then the clatter of the rifle caroming off the tree into the water. He continued forward cautiously. He had no doubts that the man was hit, but LeRoi couldn't be sure he was dead. He might be waiting with a revolver. He could see the man's foot projecting out beyond the dark outline of the tree. From the way the foot was turned, LeRoi concluded it was unlikely that the man could see him approaching, but he did not abandon his caution.
The arrow had to be collected. Not only would it serve as evidence against him, but good arrows were nearly impossible to make and were expensive to buy. All his arrows were store-bought and had a distinctive red and yellow shaft, which made it easier for them to be found once they were shot. Standing at the base of the tree, he could still see no movement. The foot was still in the same position, an augury of death.
LeRoi picked up the rifle that was leaning against a root with its stock in the water. He checked the barrel carefully for obstructions, then mounted the rough ladder that led up to the platform. Peering over the rim of the platform, he was surprised at what he saw. His arrow was deeply embedded in the man's rib cage, but that is not what surprised him. It was the badge on the man's chest. LeRoi had been expecting one of the DuMonts or their kin. Instead he found the corpse of a white man who had pale skin, greasy brown hair, and a handlebar mustache. He was obviously a deputy. As LeRoi pulled his arrow free and wiped it off on the body of the deputy, he pondered whether he and his uncle had walked into an ambush. Cupping his hands and blowing into them, he made two quick owl hoots, a signal of alarm.
His signal was answered by six or seven shots. Standing up, LeRoi could see the flash of a gun from another tree platform fifty yards away. As LeRoi shouldered the rifle and took aim, he saw the pinkness of the man's face on the other platform. He squeezed the trigger and saw the man's body jerk backward and fall into the sea of vapor. Several more shots were fired in the distance, but LeRoi couldn’t see where they came from.
It was clear the DuMonts had found out about the Tremains' raid and had somehow lured the sheriff's men out to take their side. LeRoi went through the deputy's pockets, checking for valuables. The man had only three dollars, which he took along with the badge. At the base of the tree, he put the rifle and the bow into the small dinghy and paddled out to find how his Uncle Jake had fared. Entering the channel, he let the current carry him. He levered another bullet into the rifle's chamber and set it against the gunwale; he knocked an arrow into his bow. Occasionally, he would row to avoid partially submerged logs and other debris, but for the most part he listened and stared into the fog.
Somewhere ahead of him to his left, a man cried out in pain. LeRoi dug his oar deep into the water to change direction and sent the dinghy slithering across the water. There was another cry, sounding like his Uncle Jake. Up ahead he saw movement around the dim outline of an island. He let the dinghy come to rest in a small thicket of bushes forty feet distant from the island. There were sounds of heated conversation.
Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Guy Johnson's Standing at the Scratch Line. We hope they will provide new insights and ways of looking at this epic novel.
1. The period between World War I and World War II was a time when African-Americans began experiencing real gains in their status and wealth, but it was accompanied by equally vicious reprisals on the part of whites. King represents this spirit of rebelliousness and his success is met with jealousy and reprisals. Why do his enemies react with such vehemence toward him? He inspires fear in many; does he inspire love? Do you like or dislike King? Why?
2. When we first encounter King, he is a teenager living in Louisiana; from there he travels to France, New York, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and finally to San Francisco. Each of these places represents a different stage of his life, from the anger and naivete in the bayous of his youth to his becoming the seasoned businessman of San Francisco. How does King evolve as he moves from one place to another? What remains the same? What changes?
3. King's attempt to live life on his own terms inevitably clashes with others' inability to accept his authority or his race. He cannot seem to stay in one place or out of conflict for too long. Despite all the trouble it causes, is this unwillingness to compromise the key to his success? What does this say about his future? How is his son Jack different from him?
4. When Serena discovers Mamie's picture in her husband's possession she becomes fixated on Mamie's color. Are Serena's feelings sparked by jealousy or hate? What role does color play in black society at that time? In the present?
5. King does not shrink from violence and feels no hesitation about using it against anyone who threatens him. Interestingly, King rarely initiates violence but automatically reverts to it when provoked. Is King the cause of his violent altercations or is he simply reacting? Are his actions justified? Do you think that Sergeant McGraw got what he deserved?
6. Having spent much of her youth escaping from under the shadow of her father, Serena feels she has left her past behind by marrying King. But it is King who later accuses her of following her father's example. Is this true? Why does she choose to withhold information regarding King's first son even when it becomes apparent that her children may die as a result? What about Serena and King are so different?
7. King feels little remorse at killing those he thinks are a threat to him, but when people close to him are hurt or killed as a result of his actions, he is pained. How does King deal with the death of those like Uncle Jake and Professor? Do the deaths of his family and friends affect his behavior in any way? Does he accept responsibility for them?
8. Mace, the mayor of Bodie Wells, resembles King in spirit and courage but differs in his loyalties. Where King claims no permanent attachments, Mace has deep roots in Bodie Wells. When King kills a deputy, Mace accuses him of unnecessarily jeopardizing the town. King claims the townsfolk's cautious and conciliatory ways only invite further trouble. What makes it easier for King to say this than Mace? What are the costs of action or inaction? Why did black townships cease to exist?
9. What kinds of characters do Mace, Professor, Phillip, and his father, Claude, represent?
10. What does King's relationship with Sampson reveal about him?
11. Many of King's targets initially discount his role in their destruction because of his race, only to realize too late that he has capitalized on the arrogance of their own racism. Johnson alludes to the black community's long history of guerilla warfare and sabotage during slavery and beyond. Discuss this legacy of resistance through manipulation and subversion. How do the characters in Standing at the Scratch Line adopt it?
12. Johnson covers a wide range of the history in Standing at the Scratch Line, moving from Louisiana in 1916 to California in the 1940s. Describe the changes we see in American society in that time. How do the fortunes of King and Serena mirror these changes?
13. What compels King to act the way he does?
14. Do you feet this novel accurately reflects the racism and prejudice that African-Americans experienced in this country?