September may officially be Architecture Month in Memphis, but local architect and teacher James Williamson of the University of Memphis won't be promoting his first book, a novel from 2007 simply titled The Architect. Nor will he be promoting the book he's planning to write next: a study of architect (and Williamson's mentor at the University of Pennsylvania) Louis Kahn. Williamson will be at Burke's Book Store on Thursday to read from and sign his new novel, The Ravine (Sunstone Press).
The year is 1990. The place is the fictional town of Tuckalofa in the hill country of north Mississippi. And Harry Polk is down from Memphis to see to the funeral of his beloved aunt, whom everyone knows as Miss Cordelia. But a deskfull of Cordelia's private papers leads Harry back to another time. The year was 1958. The place was Tuckalofa. And Harry, age 13, spends a summer there with his aunt and uncle. What he discovers about the town, good and bad, and about its community of whites and blacks at the dawn of the civil rights era will last Harry a lifetime.
Circumstances very much like Harry's that summer have lasted Williamson a lifetime too, which is why he wanted to return to that time and place in The Ravine, which combines the autobiographical and the fictionalized. The death of a black man at the hands a white sheriff (and the murder trial and the sheriff's acquittal by an all-white jury) is central to both The Ravine and a parallel event from Williamson's own boyhood.
"Everybody in town was very upset by the results of that trial, and it made a lasting impression on me," Williamson says. "It was the first time in my experience that the institutions I'd been taught to trust had obviously failed." As they fail Harry Polk.
And what of Williamson's combining of two talents: architecture and storytelling?
"Tough question," he says. "I don't know. They both have something to do with the desire to express, and it's been a fulfilling experience — to get some of this stuff out, tell my story."
James Williamson reading from and signing "The Ravine," Burke's Book Store, Thursday, September 6th, 5:30-6:30 p.m. For more information, call Burke's at 278-7484.