This week, Don reviews “Times Undoing” by Cheryl A. Head.
This story was inspired, Head tells us, by the exploration into a true family mystery. She writes “I began writing this book in rage….” We cannot know to what extent Head has altered the story, and that doesn’t matter really. This is a novel, smooth, highly readable, convincing.
In Detroit, Michigan in 2019, our protagonist, Meghan McKenzie, an African-American and the youngest reporter on the staff of the “Detroit Free Press,” is exhausted from covering the funerals of Black men killed by police. Five funerals in six months, she tells us. These events have an infuriating sameness, and the situation does not seem to be improving.
For McKenzie, these deaths have a personal dimension. Her great-grandfather Robert Lee Harrington was killed, probably by a policeman, in Birmingham in 1929. His body was never recovered. McKenzie persuades her editor to let her travel to Birmingham and research this case, not that it is the prototype, but because in learning about Harrington, she may learn greater truths, find patterns that are 90 years old.
The scene switches to 1929 Birmingham, and chapters will mostly alternate between Harrington’s first-person story and McKenzie’s investigation in 2019. Harrington, we learn, after an altercation with a white man, had moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Birmingham, with his pregnant wife and young daughter.
He is in no way a criminal or a violent or troublesome man, but he is a proud man—proud of his wife, his fine clothes, and especially his new Franklin automobile. He attracts attention. He is also a well-paid master carpenter, an artist in wood, turning and carving elegant staircases, finials, bannisters. This, too, creates envy and anger among the unskilled workers.
In contemporary Birmingham, McKenzie begins her research. She reads old newspapers at the public library, sets up interviews with old folks who might remember something, talks with Black civic leaders, Black pastors, visits old graveyards, including paupers’ graves. For a while, “Time’s Undoing” is an instruction manual in investigative reporting. Some unusual bits turn up. For example, she visits a little roadside motel operated by a Black woman, which was secretly listed in the “Green Book” as a safe place for Black travelers. It looked shabby but was, in fact, elegant inside. In the owner’s apartment, signed photos of Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte and others hang on the walls.
McKenzie relentlessly and successfully investigates. No one likes their dirty historical laundry exposed for the world to see, but in this novel, resistance and non-cooperation over unearthing the past evolve quickly into threats and violence in the present. A bloody noose is laid at McKenzie’s doorstep, and there are powerful and secret forces in 2019 Birmingham that want her to stop investigating and reporting. As is often the case, the past isn’t dead, only morphed. The KKK isn’t dead; it’s morphed as well, and McKenzie’s search through dusty documents soon becomes an action thriller.