Albert French Critical Essays

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."