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Albert French

Albert French Essay - Critical Essays

French, Albert

Introduction

Albert French Billy

Born in 1943, French is an American novelist.

Inspired by an actual event, Billy (1993) is the story of a black youth's victimization in rural 1930s Mississippi. Ten-year-old Billy Lee Turner is bold and reckless, not yet aware of the invisible social barrier between blacks and whites. When he impulsively leads his friend Gumpy to the outskirts of the white community, the foray results in double tragedy: the boys are attacked by two white teenage girls for trespassing on private property, and Billy fatally stabs one. Although he is young and acted in self-defense, he is tried as an adult for first-degree murder. The jury, eager to avenge a white girl's death at the hands of a "nigger," finds him guilty in a one-day trial, sending him to jail and the electric chair. Telling his story in the vivid dialect of an omniscient lower-class narrator, French earned praise for the authenticity of his narrative voice and his incorporation of powerful details of setting and character. Many of those details, French has revealed, came from his experiences as a Marine in the Vietnam War—Billy's intense visions of death and fear and loss echo the horrors of war. Although some critics have argued that the narrative seems melodramatic at times and the voice inconsistent, many maintain that the novel nevertheless brings racism into painfully sharp focus. Nicci Gerrard called Billy a "devastating" tale about "monstrous racial injustice … a horror story played out to sweet music."

Criticism

Publishers Weekly (review date 30 August 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Billy, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 35, August 30, 1993, p. 73.

[In the following review, the critic praises Billy for its intensity.]

A talented writer makes his debut in this stark, harrowing novel [Billy] of a young black boy's death. Forcefully told, though sometimes veering into melodrama, the story vivifies the consequences of racial hatred. In 1937, in the small town of Banes, Miss., 10-year-old Billy Lee Turner lives with his mother in one of the miserable shanties of the black ghetto called the Patch. Headstrong Billy convinces another youngster to enter the white area of town, where they are attacked by teenaged cousins who are enraged to see black boys in "their" pond. Seeking to escape, Billy impulsively stabs one of the girls; she dies, and the white community works itself into a paroxysm of rage and violence. Though Billy is too young to comprehend what he has done, he is sentenced to the electric chair. The insistent voice of the narrator—convincingly rural, unlettered, and lower class—propels the narrative at a frantic pace, and the characters are delineated through vernacular dialogue that reproduces the unvarnished racism of most of the white community and the routinely profane interchanges of the uneducated blacks. Though nearly every scene is rendered with high-glare intensity, the closing episodes set in the Death House are especially searing. If in his need to sustain a feverish atmosphere French scants subtleties, the novel pulses with its unnerving vision of in-humanity legalized under the name of justice.

Donna Seaman (review date 1 October 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Billy, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 3, October 1, 1993, p. 254.

[In the review below, Seaman hails Billy for its power and strong narrative voice.]

This stunning first novel [Billy] seems to have sprung full-blown from the red dirt of the land it portrays, hot and dusty rural Mississippi circa 1937. It's a blazing summer Saturday, and the black folks in Banes are happy not to be laboring in the fields. Billy Lee Turner, 10 years old and as mysterious and independent as his beautifully golden and regal mother Cinder, convinces his friend Gumpy to cross the railroad bridge that separates the black neighborhood from the homes of the whites. The boys can't resist wading in the cool pond on the Pasko property and are terrified when Lori, 15, red-haired, mean, and powerful, and her friend Jenny sneak up on them and beat them up. Gumpy escapes, but Lori has hurt Billy badly. When she finally lets him go, he stabs her in the chest. Lori's death is like a match to kindling. The sheriff can barely contain the mob of whites intent on revenge. The frightened boys are tried as adults in a trial based not on justice, but on blatant racism. This is an American tragedy, stark and resonant, told in a voice as unwavering as the August sun and as timeless as sorrow.

Rhoda Koenig (review date 13 December 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Billy, in New York Magazine, Vol. 26, No. 49, December 13, 1993, p. 90.

[In the following review, Koenig presents a mixed assessment of Billy.]

On a hot afternoon in 1937, two black boys in a Mississippi town stray too far from home. They are attacked and beaten, and one of them, Billy Lee Turner, pulls out a knife in panic and sticks it between the ribs of the white teenage girl who has clawed at his face. In a short time, she bleeds to death. This kind of thing has not happened before, but the sheriff knows just what to do. He makes his way straight to LeRoy's bar and says to LeRoy,

"I reckon it's about four-thirty, five o'clock abouts. I want them two boys fore that sun goes down. I don't get em, I'm not even gonna be askin why. Ya hear me? Ya want ta f—again, ya think about it." Sheriff Tom mumbled, but LeRoy heard him.

From then on, the plot moves with a grim inevitability for anyone who has read such a story before. The usual events are not altered by Billy's being inarticulate, not very bright, and 10 years old.

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Michael Dorris (review date 19 December 1993)

SOURCE: "No Place for a Black Boy to Swim," in The New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1993, p. 7.

[Dorris is an American poet, novelist, educator, and cultural anthropologist of Modoc Indian descent. In the review of Billy that follows, he examines the tragic consequences of racism.]

In rural Mississippi in 1937, there existed a line described entirely by race that could be fatally dangerous for anyone, even a child, to cross. The memory of slavery, the hardship of poverty and the tunnel vision of ignorance combined with a one-sided system of justice to divide communities as acutely as the stab of a sharp knife. Communication between the two sides was like a shout heard through mud: frightening, indistinct, annoying, poorly comprehended.

Billy, Albert French's wrenching first novel, deals with the violence that ripples out from a single incident: a pair of teen-age girls take umbrage when two little boys swim in a pond situated on what, for them, is the wrong side of the tracks. Why the girls mind so much, and the brutal, bullying way in which they react, are the legacy of social attitudes and history, for they are white and the boys are black. Billy Turner, the younger of the two boys, defends himself with a pocket knife—instead of simply enduring a beating and then running away—because at age 10 he hasn't yet understood, much less internalized, the hierarchical rules of class and privilege that govern his world. In a moment of terror, Billy still believes he has a right to resist.

Of course, he's wrong. When, by freak chance, his blade fatally nips the tip of 15-year-old Lori Pasko's aorta, he activates a chain of events that neither common sense nor normal compassion can break. The (at least partly) self-provoked "accident" of Lori's death casts nearly every adult and child in the state into rigid roles....

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Nicci Gerrard (essay date 6 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Flowing Fast and True from Vietnam," in The Observer, February 6, 1994, p. 18.

[In the following essay, based on an interview with French, Gerrard explores how the author's Vietnam War experiences shaped Billy.]

Once upon a time in America, an 11-year-old black boy was sent to the electric chair. His name is not remembered; records have been lost: it was a long time ago, before the war. Fifty years later, a sad man in search of a life was flicking TV channels and came across a panel discussing capital punishment, in which they mentioned the boy. His attention was caught, and four years later he started to write a book that would bring that little boy back to...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)

Albert French with Polly Vedder, CLC Yearbook (interview date 4 January 1995)

[In the interview below, French discusses his writings, experiences that shaped his writing, and the writing process.]

[Vedder]: Racism is central to Billy; what kind of personal experience have you had with that issue?

[French]: Well, the racism in Billy, quite honestly, is a backdrop. It's been written that it lights up the face of American racism; Billy was not meant to be that. My feeling about writing Billy was to get the feelings of Billy himself, Cinder, his mother, her feelings, Lori Pasko, Ginger Pasko, these people involved. It wasn't to light up the face of racism.

So it was character that was really...

(The entire section is 2338 words.)