Riverrun Books 1st November 2018
June, 1957. One hot afternoon, in a backwater town in the American South, a young farmer named Tucker Caliban throws salt on his field, shoots his horse and livestock, sets fire to his house and departs the state. And thereafter, the entire African-American population leave with him.
The reaction to this mass exodus comes from the white townsfolk who remain. Every one of whom -whether male or female, young or old, liberal or conservative, bigoted or sympathetic – is grappling with, and attempting to explain, this spontaneous rejection of subordination.
As powerful today as it was upon its first publication in 1962, William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is a provocative and prescient triumph of satire and spirit.
Firstly thank you to Ana at Quercus for sending me my copy of this book – republished by Riverrun an imprint of Quercus as part of a 7 publisher bidding war! The promotion for this book has been fantastic, staff at Quercus Books were given the day off to read this book as they and many others join the movement to #bangthedrum
This is a work of fiction and it takes the form of an unfolding story as the white townsfolk observe first the actions of Tucker Caliban, and then the mass exodus of the remaining African – American population of the state. The book starts with a story of a slave boat bringing Tucker Caliban’s ancestor to America, known as the African, a man of immense strength who escapes and is pursued, until his eventual capture and murder, leaving only his child who remains with the family who through slavery bought his father. It is suggested by the white townsfolk that for Tucker Caliban, his departure is a moment of madness due to the blood of the African stirring in him. Resistance against oppression perceived as an anomaly, a form of madness and wholly unreasonable.
The writing is exquisite and Kelley creates an atmosphere that is palpable, centred around the porch of the main store, there is a sense for the reader of watching, observing the watchers as they contemplate the happenings in their small town. I think for me what the author captures well and what was enlightening was the surprise elicited by the decision by the African American population to no longer live in the manner they were. Met with absolute surprise, some indifference but also much indignation about this perceived act of rebellion. The ending is brutal, but this book wasn’t ever going to be a light read. Insightful and thought provoking this is a truly great read and a definite must read.
The story has some strong themes around race and segregation and the story covers many strands as the stories of different white townsfolk are told within the context of the actions of Tucker Caliban. For a book of this nature – with a painful and shameful central theme but also branded by the New Yorker as ‘The Lost Giant of American Literature’ this was a surprisingly readable book, that I found hard to put down.
About the Author
Considered part of the Black Arts Movement, Kelley was in 2014 officially credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with coining the political term ‘woke’, in a 1962 New York Times article entitled, ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’. More books followed A Different Drummer, and Kelley kept writing, testing the limits of language and structure. For the last forty-seven years of his life, up until his 2017 death, he wrote constantly and left an incredible archive of writing and photographs, and two unpublished novels.