The Gettin Place, Susan Straight, Hyperion, 1996, 488 pp
Part Two: Susan Straight Week
The theme of Susan Straight's third novel is racial violence. In Treetown on the northern edge of Straight's fictional Rio Seco, the Thompson family lives in clannish isolation, running their car towing and repair business from within chain link fencing. As the LA riots break out after the acquittal of Rodney King's attackers, violence also breaks out in Rio Seco. The Thompsons are subjected to a string of incidents beginning on the night two white women burn to death in a car abandoned on their property.
Hosea Thompson, the patriarch, was himself chased out of Tulsa, OK, after his father was killed in a violent attack on the ghetto where Hosea had grown up decades ago. He is a proud, hardened man with no trust in white people, law enforcement or government. He is also a wily one, well versed in the treacherous ways of the white race, who keeps his own counsel and depends on his sons for backup and moral support.
Marcus Thompson, the youngest son, nicknamed Sissyfly as he grew up, is literate and more open to all peoples. He is a school teacher, lives in downtown Rio Seco and possesses a sense of ease with whites, Mexicans and Asians which his father and brothers find incomprehensible, if not downright foolish. Marcus finally becomes of use to his family as his ability to negotiate with the white world helps them hang on to their land and livelihood.
The Rodney King riots, as they are called in Los Angeles, were about the first thing that happened when I moved here and started a new job in Pasadena in January, 1992. Black youths streamed down Colorado Blvd from their neighborhoods in Altadena, breaking the plate glass windows in the front of the building where I worked. Though I had lived in Ann Arbor, MI, around the time of the Detroit riots, I had never been that close to mass violence. I found out that I had no concept of how frightening it actually is. Which means I had no concept of how close to violence, attack and potential annihilation most Black people live. Black fathers raise their sons to be as tough as possible and the mothers protect their daughters ferociously while they fear for their sons. The complications in their lives are myriad and the losses of children, spouses, property and finance are beyond what most Americans have to face.
The "gettin place" is slang for where your people, your loving, your security and just about anything else you might need as a Black person can be found. This story of a family clan's implacable will had me so mesmerised that the last few days of 2010 were obliterated for me. The novel is dense and thick, with the mystery of who wants the Thompson's land running through it. The histories of Hosea Thompson, his brother Oscar, his half-Mexican wife, their missing daughter, and the fates of their sons are wound together like the vines that cover the chain link fence around their property.
I came away with a new respect for the use of force and a renewed appreciation of the need for reason in human relationships. A combination of the two wins the day in The Gettin Place.