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The Chaneysville Incident

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Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award " The Chaneysville Incident  rivals Toni Morrison's  Song of Solomon  as the best novel about the black experience in America since Ellison's  Invisible Man ." —  Christian Science Monitor The legends say something happened in Chaneysville.  The Chaneysville Incident  is the powerful story of one man's obsession with discovering what that something was a quest that takes the brilliant and bitter young Black historian John Washington back through the secrets and buried evil of his heritage. Returning home to care for and then bury his father's closest friend and his own guardian, Old Jack Crawley, John comes upon the scant records of his family's proud and tragic history, which he drives himself to reconstruct and accept. This is the story of John's relationship with his family, the town, and the woman he loves; and also between the past and the present, between oppression and guilt, hate and violence, love and acceptance.

448 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1981

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About the author

David Bradley

2 books21 followers

American author (b. 1950) and professor of creative writing who wrote South Street (1975) and The Chaneysville Incident (1981)

Full name is David H. Bradley, Jr.

Do not confuse with the other authors of the same name.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 143 reviews
Profile Image for Nicholas.
Author 6 books73 followers
June 10, 2013
I am totally perplexed by the rave reviews of this novel. This is one of those books where I wish I was better able to stop reading something that I didn't much like and just move on. But I soldiered through all 450 pages, pretty much desperate for the end the whole time.

I'm not sure what bothered me the most about The Chaneysville Incident, and how much what bothered me was related to the fact that I do for a living what the protagonist does (historian). Clearly that is part of it, because Bradley's version of that profession resembles no historian I have ever encountered here on earth. But it was more than that; from beginning to the end I just found so much of it implausible: The way that John talks, in endless paragraphs reconstructing the past, with details that no historian (or anyone else) could possibly access, was just mind-numbing to me. The fact that Judith stayed with John through these almost endless monologues was also a little implausible. I could go on, but Bradley already went on at such length that I just want to be done with this book.

I recognize that people love this novel, and also that it's dealing with some really interesting and important material (the history of slavery, the legacy of racism in the United States), but I just found it pretty deadly. Also: if I never have to hear about toddies again, it will still be far too soon.
Profile Image for Albert.
367 reviews48 followers
January 30, 2022
I was surprised before beginning this novel that none of my GR friends had read it already. I have a spectacular group of GR friends; I am always amazed at the breadth of what they have read. So this situation doesn’t usually arise. While the novel has it faults, there is mystery in how both the characters and plot develop. The way in which the story is told was rather unique. I have read much fiction and non-fiction that focuses on slavery in America, but the insights provided by this novel felt fresh and powerful, despite the novel being 40 years old. I thought the description of the economics of slavery both horrible and enlightening.

John Washington is a black man and a professor of history in Philadelphia. John’s father, Moses Washington, was a moonshiner, a savvy businessman and an extremely talented woodsman who died while supposedly hunting. John uses his training as an historian and researcher to try to uncover his father’s history as well as the circumstances surrounding his death. All this takes place in Pennsylvania, not far north of the Mason-Dixon line. John’s investigations lead him deep into the politics and economics of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the impact of slavery on members of his family. The story veers off on tangents that can be distracting, but you always get pulled back in by the core of the story.

This novel won the PEN/Faulkner award in 1982. I was glad I came across it. Those readers who enjoy historical fiction and well-developed characters may find this an exciting discovery.
Profile Image for Tamora Pierce.
Author 146 books83.2k followers
December 13, 2011
John Washington, African-American scholar and son of a Baptist minister, comes home to his small, southern Pennsylvania town--Chaneysville--to bury his father and say goodbye to the old man who taught him about the hills and history of the area, the man he felt more sympathy with and for than his upright, moralistic father. His academic career is stalled at this time, but he feels it get a boost when he recalls his friend's tales about a group of runaway slave who reached the town, only to be buried there. Despite resistance from the town, Washington digs for the whole story and the academic resources that will give him the work he needs. His search brings him many things, including love, a better understanding of his mentor and his father, and the history of runaway slaves and his town.

Based on real events, this nearly-forgotten book won the PEN-Faulkner Award when it was published. It's a fascinating read about historians, small-town Pennsylvania, and the things that people would prefer to have forgotten, almost a horror novel in some ways. I have loved it since it came out, and had my first copy of it stolen from someone who borrowed it and obviously esteemed it as much as I did.
885 reviews19 followers
September 25, 2020
I found the novel at turns exhilarating, engrossing, maddening, confusing, promising, and ultimately unfulfilled… Which is not to say it was not worth the reading, nor that it was a poor book—only that expectations I brought with me and that I perceived Bradley’s narrative had fostered did not finally pan out as I had hoped.

What Bradley successfully brings off are his characterizations of Blacks Moses Washington and his grandfather C.K. (Brobdinag) Washington, each with at least one if not both feet planted in tall tale, larger-than-life territory. Where the characterization becomes dodgy is with the principal character, the narrator, Moses’ son, John, a 39-year-old university history professor. His tetchy relationship with white psychiatrist Judith—his ostensible lover—is thoroughly one sided, as she makes all the concessions and is the one to goad John constantly to emote. His anger is seemingly constant, suppressed, and ready to erupt, but while this aspect of his character is clear to Judith and to the reader, John remains blind, even unconcerned about it. He often explodes or seethes or simply acts cruelly to Judith, as if she’s to understand and withstand in order to be with him.

John’s anger is predicated on at least three things: his life as a talented Black man continually belittled in a racist society, and his failure to understand more about his father—whom he’d respected and feared and maybe even loved—and his suicide 30 years before. Another source of at least anxiety (maybe for the reader as well) is John's incomprehension about his mother, a woman so different from his father, and with whom he shows no love, feeling she doled all her own out on his brother. A final branch in the furnace of his hatred is history itself, the entire history of Black servitude and segregation, and the legacy of persistent prejudice.

All of these things come spilling out when John is reluctantly called back to his small Pennsylvania home town at the behest of Old Jack Crawley, his father’s former companion who’d become John’s surrogate father. The dying man brings up the past and Mose’s Washington part in it with vivid clarity, and it’s one of the novel’s several triumphs.

John begins to raise the ghosts of his past with Old Jack, and in preparing for the old man’s funeral, John confronts the town’s White power structure, embodied in his lawyer’s father, Judge Hawley. These scenes play out melodramatically, and the knowingness of the old Judge and the naïve eruptions of anger from John are oddly balanced. In any case, John is made aware of his father’s legacy, a fact his mother had withheld. In this encounter with the Judge, there is repetition from a different vantage of details about the near lynching that Old Jack had described not long before.

Moses’ legacy to john is a packet of papers Judge Hawley (and all the White power brokers in the county) has assumed were incriminating documents, for Moses had had everyone under his thumb in one way or another when he was alive. Instead, it is Moses’ collection of historical documents pertaining to his own ancestry, in particular to C.K. (Brobdinag) Washington, whose date and manner of death were unknown. After trying to make sense of all that has been left to him, the novel shifts abruptly into a long episode of John hunting a deer, which is one of the novel’s highlights. John’s hunt in the snowy hills and forests outside the town is as vivid as anything in Hemingway, another version of the quest John’s undertaken to understand his heritage.

Upon his return to the Old Jack’s lonely cabin, John finds Judith. Out of frustration at his silence about returning to Virginia, she had come for her own set of answers. With Judith as muse and gadfly, John recounts what he’s come to know of C.K. Washington. Her presence somehow gives him needed insight, and the two of them make a dangerous nighttime trek to Chanesysville, where his father had killed himself. As they drive through the night, John narrates a long history of the Washingtons, from the first slave to C.K.’s son. Their car gets stuck, they pitch camp, and then hike to the graveyard; all the while John continues to unspool the long story of C.K. and his efforts at the end of his life to save a band of escaped slaves. They find 13 gravestones at the edge of the formal graveyard, and this is the final piece John needs to understand what had become of C.K. and his father. In the wind, he has heard voices…

His quest is over, and before he will return to Virginia, he destroys all of his own notes—gathered over a lifetime—but he restores to pristine shape the library and the documents his father had given him, as a further legacy for those with a will to understand.

There is in the end a spiritual awakening for John, a revelation about himself, his race, and his relation to Whites and the present. It is a vision that reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, powerful and inspiring, full of a magical and spiritual conception of life. But I hesitate to be convinced, despite the long quest and many years traversed in the narrative of John, Moses, and C.K. Washington. The vision is quickly revealed, and its effects are incalculable, as the novel swiftly thereafter ends. Are readers to assume some transformative experience, a full-on catharsis that will forever appease John’s demons so that they leave him in peace?

Despite an ending that did not fully convince, the novel’s journey is immensely entertaining. When one considers how the legacy of slavery persists in subtle and blatant demonstrations of prejudice and fear, there is perhaps no ending that might have done full justice.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 11 books125 followers
November 1, 2021
Wow! This novel should be in the running for Great American Novel, especially in its focus on race in American history, with a narrator who’s even an historian. It may have some weaknesses, but they seem very small compared to its many strengths: the complexity of its narrator, the power and sometimes humor of its many stories (mostly short, but the last story is very long), and its various hunting scenes (of both deer and Blacks) and quests. It’s hard to believe I’d scarcely heard of this work.
Profile Image for Kurt Keefner.
Author 2 books8 followers
August 4, 2011
The story is a mystery within a mystery. Present-day black historian John Washington is trying to figure out what happened to his father, who died of a gunshot wound near a farm. His father, Moses, in turn had been trying to figure out something about his own grandfather, C.K., a black man who had freed himself from slavery but who disappeared before the Civil War. John will not exorcize his own demons until he solves this double-riddle.

There are deep and resonating themes in this story. There is black and white--and male and female, which relate to each other in interesting ways in this world. John lives with a white woman to whom he cannot commit. He is bitter about the legacy of racism in America. Don't read this book if you don't want to listen to an angry black man. Do read this book if you want to find out how he finally deals with his anger.

For me the most important opposition is between reason and intuition. As a professional historian, John has a very systematic way of organizing information. But he was raised on stories told around a stove by his wise Uncle Jack and he learned how to hunt by sensing what a deer would do. John ends up synthesizing conventional rationality, narrative imagination and the felt sense to discover his answers.

These characters are thinking people. This isn't Richard Wright showing us how an inarticulate black man gets himself killed. These are people who use their minds and take charge of their destinies. That's worth reading about even if you don't normally read books by black authors about black people.

The Chaneysville Incident is strong stuff, not a beach book. But it is intensely satisfying.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
12 reviews8 followers
December 27, 2008
This is hands down one of my favorite novels, ever. While it's true that I am a bit of a modern American racial history geek, I appreciated it not simply for Bradley's impressive accomplishment in creating such a detailed and moving work of historical fiction. I read this book about a year ago, and what has stayed with me the most is how incredibly evocative Bradley's descriptions of winter are. Not since Ethan Frome (which I admit is totally depressing) have I read something which so perfectly captures both the beauty and harshness of winter in the rural northeast (where I grew up). I was also impressed with Bradley's creation of a not totally likable but still compelling main character. This book is very long, and intellectually stimulating, but more than anything, deeply, deeply moving.
Profile Image for Abby.
1,424 reviews178 followers
July 30, 2015
A slowly and carefully revealed family history, pursued by the bitter and sharp protagonist, historian John Washington. David Bradley does an excellent job of uncovering the family's tragic ancestry by small degrees and measured revelations. Washington himself is difficult to like: he is cruel to everyone (including his mother and girlfriend), he admits to having raped a woman merely because she was white, he is not generous or kind or thoughtful. But after learning his story, Bradley permits you to understand that it is very plausible that Washington's character would present itself in this hard, unyielding way. Very interesting, well told, and not easy to read, but recommended.
Profile Image for BookishGlow.
164 reviews38 followers
October 9, 2009
This was a spectacular novel that perpetually engages the reader into a journey of a historian who investigates the death of his father and discovers the cause of death of his past ancestors. This is a magnificent novel for those who enjoy a well written novel that includes a rich array of history, particularly during the age of slavery and the Underground Railroad. David Bradley is a talented writer who presents a novel full of love, hate, mystery, and discovery.
Profile Image for Shinynickel.
201 reviews22 followers
Want to read
February 26, 2010
Off this review:

Forgotten Histories
Feb 21 2010, 4:30 PM ET

I started off the week talking about allegory and Ralph Ellison, so it's only right that I spend a little time talking about a work that got pegged as a successor to Invisible Man. Written by David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident hit bookshelves in 1981. At least one review compared it favorably to Ellison's signature work and the two of them share a feverish quality that comes from wrestling with the long-term historical effects of racism.

The book focuses on historian/college professor John Washington coming to grips with the way his family's lineage intertwines with the rural Pennsylvania town where he grew up. Coming back to tend to Old Jack Crawley, his father's ailing best friend and the man who raised him, he finds out just how much legacy he's run away from. In Old Jack's deathbed stories, John learns that his father Moses is something of a mythical trickster: a skilled woodsman, distiller of the best moonshine for miles and ladies' man extraordinaire.

Bradley shows us that the memories are always there, lying in wait for us, only waiting for us to listen for them on the wind, or to actively go hunting for them. In different time periods, John and Moses literally take off hunting after those memories, and they both come to tragic ends because of it. In the end, neither John's icy academic rigor or Moses' trickster qualities can stave off the chilling eventualities that await them. The book's unsparing in its portrayal of racial violence and shows how the behaviors we commonly associate with the Deep South weren't confined to the Mason/Dixon line.

Chaneysville channels the necromantic power of unrecovered history. It's something that Ta-Nehisi's been touching on a lot as he writes about slavery, the Civil War and the way the conflicts were remembered. It's not just the fact that the history we don't know can hurt us; there's the added danger of how we learn it and who we learn it from. The irony here is that Chaneysville's been out of print for more about 20 years and has become itself to a lost record of how black people have understood themselves.
Profile Image for Nancy.
42 reviews1 follower
September 26, 2019
This is one of the best books that I have ever read. The reason I say this is that it stayed with me for months after I read it. It's a truly haunting book. The story is based on a little known event that actually happened and the author is also a historian in real life--just like the protagonist in the story.

There are two mysteries in the book.

The first concerns the past. The graves of thirteen escaped slaves were found in a small town in rural Pennsylvania (on the border--near the Underground Railroad), and not only that, but whoever buried them took a lot of time and trouble to do so. Why did the slaves die? Slaves were considered property at that time, and their labor was considered too valuable to throw away. Slaves caught trying to escape might have been punished but they were rarely killed. And whoever buried them clearly did so with great respect--at a time when most whites, even in the North, did not have a lot of respect for African Americans, and the graves of slaves were rarely marked. Who buried them and took the trouble to put up markers, and why did they apparently feel so much respect?

The second mystery concerns the present. An African American man returns to his hometown in Pennsylvania and discovers that his father, who recently died, was researching what happened to the thirteen slaves at the time of his death. Why was his father researching the slaves and what exactly happened to his father? How did he die? What exactly is the connection between his father and a group of slaves who escaped over 100 years ago?

Keep in mind that the graves of the thirteen slaves still exist and nobody really knows what happened to them or how they died. This book attempts to answer that question.

Very moving story.

Profile Image for Lynn Pribus.
1,988 reviews52 followers
August 12, 2020
An extraordinary book. I found it listed in 1000 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE. Written in the 1980s by a Black PhD historian who was then teaching in some university (Delaware?) -- he taught at many -- about an incident near his hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania.

It's a densely written novel -- some pages have no indentation at all with lengthy soliloquies -- but much in a storyteller guise. Very pertinent in these days when BLM no longer means Bureau of Land Management (to this long-time dweller in the West who often camped out off the beaten path).

A great deal of Black history I didn't know about. How much the Methodist Church was instrumental in the establishment of slavery, for example, or the fact that a major export for Virginia was slaves sent to the Lower South. 10,000 a year. In the Upper South, female slaves were kept as "breeders" and as a very practical investment because they could produce additional wealth in the form of children.

Beautifully written. Lots and lots of detailed history. For example the portrayal of moonshine production and the back-door relationships between the shiners and the upper class whites of the community. A wonderful long scene of the funeral of a Black man with a number of whites in attendance wondering when on earth it would be over with. Long delvings into the narrator's family history.

The narrator is a Black historian who has been in a relationship with a white woman for 5 years which gives space to address those aspects of the simply-not-understanding part of the racial divide in our country.

Glad I discovered this book.
Profile Image for Eles Jackson.
261 reviews
January 20, 2014
This book was very frustrating for me. I was very interested in the "story" but very and completely bored and annoyed by the extremely long tangents of history the author took you on. The reason they were so annoying is because, in my opinion, they had NOTHING to do with the plot! The author would randomly choose a time to explain the history of the city or the history of paper or some such thing. A little background of information is sometimes a good idea, but in this book, there would be page after page after page after page after page (you get the idea) of unnecessary information. I don't like to read history and I'm not a big non-fiction reader. So I wasn't happy with so many history lessons. I was not expecting that when I chose to read this book. So it was a little disappointing on that account.
13 reviews
February 5, 2015
Drags on and on and ....

The professor (author) forgot to leave the lecture hall before he started to write this book. Many digressions to unimportant or completely irrelevant bits of history. As a child the main characters is certainly believable and sympathetic, but he loses on both fronts as an adult who hates much deeply & without reason, is still waiting for emancipation from whitey, and uses alcohol (from, or instead of, breakfast, til he goes to bed and all points in between) as a catalyst for problem solving and to mask his emotional pain. Too many instances of page after page of cumbersome, truly tedious history where brevity in the narration would have been golden. There is some interesting history, but the book is about a third too long.
Profile Image for Amy.
226 reviews8 followers
May 28, 2018
A unique book that appears to follow a different sort of history of race in Pennsylvania. While the writing style is difficult to follow at times, the overall story provides a dark yet fascinating mystery that will entice most readers.
Profile Image for Sawan Garde.
11 reviews1 follower
November 9, 2022
read for english class. pretty complicated read. i’m definitely glad I read it for a class. a very thought provoking book!
Profile Image for Steve Walker.
284 reviews114 followers
November 18, 2021
For me this is the definitive "Afro-American Novel". I know everyone is sold on "Invisible Man" or "Song of Solomon". "Invisible Man" is a great novel, but it deals with the Afro-American as an idea, a philosophical construct in a Manichean society. "The Chaneysville Incident" is a realistic tale of a modern black man struggling to understand where he came from and how it shaped him. David Bradley tells the story of Historian John Washington, a brilliant scholar who is also a misanthrope. He has a stormy relationship with his hometown, his family, and bitter memories of his childhood. John has returned home to care for his late father's best friend. He is also on the hunt to find what caused his father's death. Was it suicide or murder? John's father, Mose Washington, sold some of the best moonshine in the county if not the region. He also had a notebook containing the names of all of his customers, black & white. It maybe that someone wanted that notebook. But Chaneysville was also a stop on the Underground Railway. What John finds out about that, about his father, and about the citizens of Chaneysvile may bring a sense of peace or may drive him away forever.
Profile Image for Harriett Milnes.
642 reviews10 followers
January 10, 2016
Published in 1981, The Chaneysville Incident is a very well-done novel. Bradley tells the tale of a professor in Philadelphia, who is summoned back to Chaneysville because his father's friend is dying. This friend, and his father, lived in cabins and survived on meat they had hunted. They knew about storms and snow and how to get by and survive in the woods. The professor starts to look into his father's and his grandfather's death and into his own feelings about race. Very compelling. It won the PEN/Faulkner award.
21 reviews1 follower
November 5, 2020
One of the best books I've read in past 20 years. Readers that either fail to see the point of the long historical discussions or just got bogged down with them are missing the point: they are esential to understanding the whole story that the narrator is telling and they are essential to understanding HIM. For lovers of well-written prose, they are also a gift. Cant believe it took me this long to find this book.
Profile Image for Tanya.
80 reviews
December 13, 2013
Great read, although in a few places I became confused as to who was speaking or the subject. But I could not put the book down. It's been a long time since I've been unable to put the light out and the book down. Love it! This story is mysterious, suspenseful, and so touching. Definitely worth reading.
1 review
June 8, 2020
As someone who grew up in "the county," went to school in "the town," and travels through Chaneysville to visit grandma—this book was gripping. The Chaneysville Incident is well researched and compelling. It should be mandatory reading in high schools around the country, especially in south-central Pennsylvania.
Profile Image for Diana.
109 reviews8 followers
September 21, 2016
A Good Read

White & African American...history and feelings...incidents and reactions...history...and hopefully for the reader, increased understanding.
Walking in another's shoes...so essential to understanding, acceptance and moving forward.
Profile Image for Jill.
34 reviews7 followers
August 24, 2012
Read this novel multiple times since it was first published; each time I get something more from it. Wonderful writing, a fantastic story. Really a great American novel.
Profile Image for jalylah.
18 reviews
May 6, 2014
A great book. It should be included on every Survey of American Lit syllabi.
Profile Image for Robert Donahoo.
19 reviews1 follower
June 23, 2022
This is a powerful and complex novel that seems to have gotten lost in recent years. Bradley weaves a variety of voices into a narrative controlled by an African American historian who is clearly on a personal quest, but the challenge of the novel is that the quest is never stated and ultimately left for the reader to define--as is its outcome.
Read it for the history; read it for the gripping narrative of African American life now and in the past. But this is a book definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Kris ——.
112 reviews
July 21, 2020
Intrigerend verhaal, maar ook behoorlijk zwaar en gedetailleerd (zen daardoor droog soms) beschreven. Ik denk dat maar weinig mensen dit boek kennen, maar het geeft zeker meer inkijk in de BLM-kwestie.
Profile Image for Lynn.
3,205 reviews56 followers
March 7, 2022
An African American professor goes back to his hometown when an man who raised him is dying. He looks at the death of his father and a story of 13 escaped slaves who were murdered in the town.
240 reviews
December 24, 2022
An interesting work. If I had to make a quick summation, I would say that it's about an angry and hostile individual who learns to love and to let go of a past which has obsessed him and prevented him from overcoming his anger. John Washington goes back to the Town in eastern Pennsylvania to tend to his friend and mentor Jack Crawley on his death bed, Jack taught him the ways of the woods after Moses Washington, John’s father died. Washington, an historian, with little or no empathy, a hostile attitude about white men and the Town decides to to do whatever it takes to learn why his father committed suicide. John brings the techniques of an historian to his family history, when perhaps those are not the tools he needs to decipher these mysteries and understand his own anger and hate.

What impressed me was all the history, usually in the form of John or Jack Crawley telling a story. It’s a complex story of many stories within the story as John learns how to love Judith, a white woman, and how to let go of the past after discovering the mysteries about the deaths of his father and grandfather who died on the same site, although John had no knowledge of his grandfather's death. Bradley's skill is obviously telling stories within stories. Old Jack's stories are in dialect, which is very well done, and a paragraph often runs for a couple of pages. For some, the novel might be a little dull. There's not much action, just a lot of history of the area and the characters in the story. All the threads ultimately come together rather rapidly when John learns enough to understand Moses Washington's death and at the same time learns why C.K. Washington, his grandfather, disappeared from the historical record. The reader gains insights into the black experience. It's an intriguing work.
June 9, 2020
A book as pertinent today as it was in 1981, 1881, and 1781. Bradley's narrative is a brilliant snapshot of the Black experience in the boondocks of Pennsylvania. His haunting multigenerational story is entangled with the United States' complex and ongoing history of racism and inequality - issues that rear their heads even (or especially!) in a sleepy little county just north of the Mason Dixon Line. Characters hunt for truth, power, and forgiveness in this epic, undersold novel. It's a true masterpiece. Mix a toddy, sit down next to a fire, and get reading.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
88 reviews4 followers
September 24, 2009
Hey, I would've loved it if this book sucked.

One cannot help seeing its author in its protagonist, unforgiving, yet utterly cracked and flawed to the point where one wonders why anyone would spend time and/or affection on such an unrepentant misanthrope.

One really cool thing about reading this after taking a course with Mr. Bradley: His magnum opus is modeled after Melville's Moby Dick , so you see in these pages what he means when he says "Moby Dick is a master text." Like the bible, or the dictionary, it's arguable that all other books (or stories, or moral sturctures, etc...in a sense) are contained within the source.

But it is also worth reading for its own merit. A mystery. An only semi-fictional history text. A pretty damn cogent (yeah, passing the test of time) book on race in America, though the book-jacket blurb comparison between Bradley and Ellison is patly, ridiculously false.

Oh, ifg you have ever been pissed-off by Bradley's meticulousness as he reads your > work, you'll love the errors and lazy prose scattered through this book.
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