Alligator Lake
by Lynne Bryant

New American Library, 2012. ISBN 978-0-431-23578-7.
Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 06/26/2012

Fiction: Mainstream

Racial issues aren't black and white in 2012. Today's blending of races, roles, and responsibilities defies deep-rooted fears that live on among some people. Racism has become deeper and more subtle, and most people in this country today are unaware of their own racism. "We need to wake up," according to Lynne Bryant, who gives her own voice to the issues in her new novel, Alligator Lake.

Bryant's latest characters examine racial issues from the thirties, the fifties, the seventies, and the nineties. She uses the history and legacy of the Reynolds-Pritchett family of rural Mississippi to reveal how closely guarded racial secrets continue to influence basically good people who are haunted by old shame.

Avery Pritchett, her parents Marion and Holt, and her grandmother Willadean, are a realistic, three-dimensional family with all the ups and downs, loves, hates, and competitive streaks that shape any family. I've been alive since the fifties, and even though I never lived in the South, I watched beliefs about racism change in every decade. I saw more opportunities crop up, but old beliefs are hard to change and I watched a number of people bury their racism without trying to get rid of it. I still don't know if it will die with my generation or not.

Avery Pritchett's older brother Mike is getting married. Ten years earlier, Avery moved to Colorado so she could give birth to her mixed-race child outside of Greensdale, Mississippi. To end her estrangement with the family, Mike and his fiancÚ invite Avery to be a bridesmaid at their wedding and ask her mixed-race daughter Ceci to be the flower girl.

Will the long-delayed reconciliation with her straight-laced mother and her independent-minded grandmother be all that she hopes? More importantly, how will Ceci's self-esteem and image change when she's exposed to the family she's never met and the traditional residents of Greensdale? And what will Avery do when she realizes that she must carry the sickle cell trait that she and her lover passed on to Ceci, who has the full-blown condition? As a nurse, she knows there must be a genetic link to a black person in her family history, but who could it be and when did it happen?

Bryant's scenes alternate the point of view between Avery, Marion, and Willadean, whose best friend, Sally, is a black woman. Sally's family has been tied to Willadean's, one way or another, for three generations. What will Avery have to do to unearth the truth?

The contrasting beliefs between the generations make all three women's struggles easy for us to identify with. Who hasn't had a feud with a family member? Because the women seem to have an identical commitment to their attitudes and all had similar voices, I'd sometimes lose track of who was speaking, but I always knew again within half a page. I'd only have to ask myself, "Why is Avery saying that?" to remember I was in another writer's voice.

All in all, this is a gutsy, complex story about the power of love washing over the ugliness of racism. It's still around, but it's been cleaned up. We've woven ourselves together in one society, and Ceci is living proof that racism has evolved.

Lynne Bryant was born and raised in rural Mississippi, where her maternal grandparents farmed cotton and her mother is one of their fifteen children. She grew up during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and came of age during the volatile integration of Mississippi's schools. She has a PhD in nursing and now teaches full-time at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. A lifetime of struggling to understand the complex race relations in Mississippi, a love of storytelling, and a desire to follow humbly in the footsteps of the great Southern writers prompted Lynne Bryant to write. Contemporary stories defined by the context of Southern history continue to intrigue Lynne. Visit her website.

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