Literary Criticism and Significance

Wolf Whistle, which won the Southern Book Critic’s Circle Award for fiction, is indebted to two main literary movements: the Southern gothic (or grotesque) and Latin American magic realism. The grotesque style in Southern literature was most notably developed by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, who wrote their most successful works during the 1930s and 1950s, respectively. Grotesque literature is usually peopled with odd, immoral, and/or disfigured characters that arouse sympathy in the reader. Though often bizarre, these characters could exist in the real world. However, magic realism, which also evolved in the first half of the twentieth century, mixes banal, everyday events with the phenomenal and impossible, often taking inspiration from mythology. In an Oxford American essay, Nordan wrote:

The book I produced was a complete surprise to me. It was not the Emmett Till story....I had become a magical realist, and was grateful to Latin America for making me possible.

Critics and other readers have questioned if Nordan has the right to take such liberties with Till’s murder, and some wonder if Nordan has the right to tell the story at all.

In an interview, Nordan plainly stated, “This is the white story of the murder of Emmett Till.” All the major characters, except for Bobo, are white, and one could even argue that Bobo is a minor character, because his point of view is marginalized until his death. Instead of being “the Emmett Till story,” the book describes “what happened to the people in a community where a murder was committed and they suddenly realize it might be their fault.” Like Alice Conroy, Nordan felt a measure of guilt and responsibility for Till’s murder because he shared “racial genes” with the murderers and lived so close to the crime scene. At the same time, he found himself on the defensive when out-of-state reporters misrepresented the people of Mississippi as collectively monstrous. Still, his guilt did not fade for decades. Like teenage Roy Dale in Wolf Whistle, Nordan heard locker room jokes about the deceased boy and did not have the courage to speak out against that cruelty, to even realize how cruel it was, when he was just fifteen. Over thirty years later, when he began writing Wolf Whistle, Nordan found that courage and voiced it with lyricism, complexity, tenderness, and unforgettable talent.