The Chaneysville Incident

by David Bradley

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939

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 prejudice. When John visits the most powerful man in the region, the legendary Judge Scott—who, surprisingly, was a secret friend of his father—he learns that the linkage of the black and white communities is more complicated than he had thought. When the judge discloses the terms of Moses’ will, which requires John to probe to the heart of the family mystery, John is struck by how much he still does not know about his father’s extraordinary abilities and tenacity. Judith’s determination to understand why John has been withholding some essential element of himself also encourages him to accept the challenge of his father’s bequest. Finally, his desire to know proves greater than his fear of what he might find out.

Consequently, he prepares himself for the final stage of his quest, a voyage into the past. John seeks to penetrate the veil of confusion separating him from a full understanding of the actions of both his great-grandfather C. K. Washington, who led slaves to freedom in the 1850’s, and Moses Washington, who committed suicide. At the same time, John is also moving into the deeper recesses of his subconscious, seeking an understanding of his soul in order to overcome the anger that has been the foundation of his defenses. The voyage is conducted both on the backcountry hills where his ancestors lived and also through layers of historical documents that John has gathered, organized, and puzzled over. An indication of his determination to overcome his biases is his decision to invite Judith to join him, and, as she becomes an active partner in his search, their relationship moves toward the true sharing she seeks.

The final section of the novel draws the various elements of the narrative together, as a storm that has been gathering strength sweeps in full fury across the landscape. Struggling against the forces of nature but drawing strength from their ability to survive in the harsh conditions, John and Judith follow the trail of the data John has gathered in his historical research. They find the actual grave sites of C. K. Washington and several slaves he had helped to escape who had killed themselves rather than return to slavery. This is also the place where Moses Washington chose to end his life in homage to his ancestor, who had accepted death as the only freedom available to him in the middle of the nineteenth century. The separate narrative tracks coalesce as John tells Judith the story of C. K. Washington and Harriet Brewer merging in purpose as cohering elements in a kind of mythic entity, the story which John relates paralleling the relationship he and Judith are stretching toward. Judith may not be able to understand fully the belief that John maintains in the “spirit that leaves the body that bound it to the ground”—an African and African American conception of continuing existence beyond death. John, though, wants her to understand why he lives as he does and why he hopes that he has validated his training as a historian by going beyond facts to attain an understanding that depends on an active imagination and an openness to all the implications of an elusive truth.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access