In The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley employs a dual narrative that simultaneously follows John Washington for ten days in March, 1979, when he returns to the hill country of his origin to care for and then bury “Old Jack” Crawley, and the course of John’s thoughts as he reconsiders the facts of his family’s history while he tries to solve the mystery of the “Chaneysville Incident,” which contains the key to his father’s existence. As the narrative begins, John appears to be in an admirable position as a respected young historian employed by a major university in Philadelphia, but he is troubled by a kind of rage that he has learned to control by suppressing his emotions so totally that he has shut even those closest to him out of a significant portion of his life. He has been living with Judith Powell, a white psychiatrist, whose love for him has kept them together even though he has held her at a distance. They are kept from being closer by John’s suspicions about all white people, his distrust of women, and his unusual rearing by his father and his father’s closest friends, Old Jack and Joshua “Snakebelly” White. When John is summoned by a message that Old Jack is near death, the claim of love and kinship that carries him back to the country of his youth is combined with a growing sense of urgency to reconcile his defensive posture with Judith’s demand for his trust by probing to the core of his family’s mystery.
John’s memory is engaged by his recollections of his life on “The Hill,” the old black neighborhood where he lived in the unusual house his father, Moses Washington, built. John recalls the stories Old Jack told him about his father and about the adventures of Moses and his running mates in the days when they faced active hostility from the white community. Gradually, as John ranges over his early life, his discovery of his mind as an active instrument—even a weapon—is presented as the crucial event in his development. He realizes that he has emulated his male mentors by conceiving strategies for defiance and survival that emphasize mental combat more than physical prowess; he also realizes that he has echoed his mother’s adjustments to social rejection and bigotry by projecting an icy disdain toward every incident of racial...
(The entire section is 939 words.)