In his 1993 novel Wolf Whistle, author Lewis Nordan both retells history and creates a fictional world influenced by his childhood in Mississippi. The novel is based on a real-life American tragedy: in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy, was murdered for whistling at a white woman; the two white men who committed the crime were acquitted. This event became a landmark in the life of Nordan, who was fifteen years old at the time of Till’s death, and a turning point in the civil rights movement.
At its opening, Wolf Whistle focuses on Alice Conroy, a young, white college graduate who has come to stay with her Uncle Runt and teach fourth grade in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. A white boy who would have been Alice’s student, Glenn Gregg, is indefinitely absent from school because he is severely injured. Glenn had tried to light his violent father, Solon Gregg, on fire, but the child spilled the gasoline and was burned instead.
Alice takes her students on a field trip to visit Glenn at his ramshackle home in a poor white neighborhood, where they meet his odd but captivating mother. Mrs. Gregg can only overcome her stutter by speaking in the cadence of the song “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which is even odder to her audience given the early September heat. After listening to Mrs. Gregg’s otherworldly chatter, Alice foresees a string of events, including documented moments in civil rights history such as the deaths of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. Mrs. Gregg’s bizarreness and Alice’s resulting vision are the first instances of magic realism in the novel.
In the second chapter, Solon Gregg returns to Arrow Catcher after a six-month stint of drinking, robbery, and possibly murder (though he cannot quite remember) in New Orleans. Solon heads to Red’s Goodlookin Bar and Gro., where Bobo—a fourteen-year-old African-American boy—goofs around with his friends outside. By this point in the novel, the style of the narrative has shifted to reflect the heavy Southern vernacular of Red’s patrons, which contrasts with the educated speech and thoughts of Alice Conroy. The limited-omniscient point of view shifts focus throughout the novel to reflect the experience of a multitude of major and minor characters, including pigeons, buzzards, and a “demon eye.”
As Bobo brags about his white girlfriend back home in Chicago, Sally Anne Montberclair, an affluent white woman, pulls up to the store in her Cadillac. Bobo’s friends dare him to flirt with her, and he does: he "wolf whistles" at her, which indicates that Bobo finds Sally Anne sexually attractive. Two pigeons roosting on the roof comment on the action before Solon Gregg confronts Bobo and tells him to apologize. Sally Anne, aware that no good can come from the confrontation, drives Bobo from the scene in a great hurry, but not before Bobo reveals his name, where he is from, and who he is staying with in town.
Solon decides to seek out Sally Anne’s husband, Dexter Montberclair, at his mansion and relay what happened at Red’s. The two armed men drink together, seemingly ready to shoot at any second. Dexter is in a fragile state: his wife has been sleeping in “her office,” and he is overcome with loneliness and worry. He regards Solon with thinly veiled repugnance throughout the...
(The entire section is 1404 words.)