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Friday, August 24, 2007

Book Review: Under the Liberty Oak Visits Two Long Hot Summers in Georgia

Under the Liberty Oak
Paige M. Cummings
BookSurge, LLC
317 pages

Under the Liberty Oak draws its readers into a small town mystery which began in the heat of Freedom Summer 1964. Brittan Lee Hayworth, concert pianist, music instructor and grassroots activist finds herself called home. Her return places her once again in the eye of a personal and social storm.

The body of a young girl believed to be that of her best friend Brittan Ann, is discovered at the bottom of the river running through Liberty, Georgia. Brittan Lee returns to Liberty after 40 years of exile and acts as a key witness of the current investigation into the disappearance of her child hood friend and civil rights crimes that occurred simultaneously during the summer of ’64. Andrew Zeller, FBI Agent and romantic interest to Brittan Lee, leads the local investigation to find the person responsible for Brittan Ann’s disappearance and death. He also has a personal interest in the Liberty investigation which he later reveals to Brittan Lee. Can she help solve the crimes, discover the murderer of her best friend and clear the young Black man, Ebon, who bore the blame for it?

These riveting questions along with the author’s authentic characters, dialogue and descriptions hook readers into Brittan Lee’s story. Paige M. Cummings manages to integrate bits of history and cultural interest in an authentic style which places readers in the heart of the south, its extended families and communities. She highlights Civil Rights Movement history and its still resonating effects without drifting toward preachiness or patronizing rhetoric. Her African-American characters are well drawn with integrated personalities, not caricatures, iconic figures, or stereotypes.

Although Cummings alternates her storytelling, she writes from Brittan Lee’s perspective as a young girl in 1964 to relate past events and her adult self in 2005 to tell the story of the current investigation, the story still drags in some places. The chapters of the novel related to us in the voice of a nine year old Brittan Lee ring strong and clear, pulling us to the next part of the story. Those chapters set in 2005 lose some of that clarity. The believable dialogue and depiction of southern community and family becomes a bit of a drawback. The characters tell the story, specifically past events through their dialogue in a manner which causes the novel to read more like a play. They become narrators rather than living the story as Cummings reveals it to the reader.

Regarding the mystery aspect of the novel, some of the answers to the numerous questions raised by the investigation are held a little too long. Later in the novel other revelations come together a little too quickly as the novel approaches its close. In short, Under the Liberty Oak could use a bit more balance; the strong elements, character, under treated historical context (which makes this novel an attention grabber) and dialogue, are almost lost due to the intermittent faltering in the rhythm of the story. Despite these issues, Cummings deserves credit for ending Under the Liberty Oak with an unexpected and satisfying twist.

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