Published posthumously and edited by her friend, writer Toni Morrison, Those Bones Are Not My Child is a fictional account of the actual epidemic of child killings that plagued residents of the city of Atlanta in the early 1980’s. The plot of this historical novel is based on events surrounding the murders of those forty children by a serial killer or killers and the resultant investigation.
The central characters, Zala Spencer and Nathaniel (Spence) Spencer, are estranged when they learn that the first of their three children, Sonny, is missing and presumed a victim of the killing spree. Their shock at his disappearance reunites them as they search for answers. Initially too overcome with grief to function, Zala refocuses her sorrow into outrage, becoming a community activist in her efforts to know the truth about her son’s fate.
In addition to the personal story about a mother’s plight, the novel is also a broad critique of a city, one that held the promise of a brighter future for all it residents with its election of a black mayor in 1980. However, the number of dead children begins to mount, and rumors circulate in African American communities, murmurs about child pornography and suspected Ku Klux Klan activities. A pall hangs over the black community whose residents fear the vulnerability of their children and resent the apparent indifference of white authorities.
Central to the novel is the troubling question of unequal protection. Justice may be blind, but injustice seems to see color with great clarity. Speculation that officials delayed their investigation of the crimes because the victims were young, black, and poor leaves communities distraught, divided, and suspicious. When Wayne Williams, a black man, is charged with the murders, many are skeptical that the actual killer has been caught. They suspect Williams is the wrong man at the right time, a convenient scapegoat for the heinous crimes.
Epic in scope, the work is Bambara’s most ambitious at 669 pages. A mixture of styles, including journalistic and confessional, lends the novel its realism. However, unlike traditional historical novels that seek to provide a factual tableau upon which to unfold fictionalized versions of real events, Bambara does the opposite. In Those Bones Are Not My Child, the supposed facts of the case (information culled from newspaper accounts and legal records) are in dispute. It is the fictional Spencers who are all too real.