How shall I describe this book? After cleansing my palate with a 50s Ross Macdonald noir (The Ivory Grin), I decided to jump right in to this book which has made it onto several faculty core lists, despite the subject matter being out of line with my own field interests. With Arc of Justice, Kevin Boyle has given us a compelling and sometimes manipulating narrative history. As soon as I began, I could see why this book won the National Book Award (you know, the other NBA. Although, as an aside, I wonder a little at some of the past winners of the National Book Award, don’t you?).
Anyway, the book is incredibly readable. I sat down this morning, and finished it this afternoon. It is this kind of writing that attracts annoying comments like, “so facile,” when clearly a lot of painstaking work has been done. But I suppose that’s the ultimate compliment: “you make it look easy.” And it’s a lot easier to make it look easy when you write a narrative history. While reading narrative history is often fast, it holds certain irritations for me. One of them is the tendency of the author to draw my conclusions for me. Of course, authors always do this—but non-narrative histories are so littered with questions and complications that it’s sometimes possible to ignore the path the author is trying to lead you down.
Not with Arc of Justice. Boyle gives us a complicated portrait of the people involved—make no mistake—but the meaning is unquestionable. Boyle sets the stage of a Detroit almost on fire with racial and ethnic and economic tensions in 1925. A place where a mob of 500 people could descend on a Black resident’s house and wrest the title of the house from him without facing any legal repercussions. In this environment, Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a bungalow and proceeded to defend it—and the book tells us that story, and the story of his trial ahead. In and amongst that story are other, smaller stories: Sweet’s family background, Detroit’s ethnic and political atmosphere, the NAACP’s work, and a bit of Clarence Darrow’s background, among others.
When you read this story (as it is written) you want to say to Sweet: “Hell, why are you going to Detroit? Go anywhere in the country but Detroit—what are you, crazy?” But if not Sweet, then someone else—and possibly not someone who would have garnered the legal defense of Clarence Darrow. What I took away most of all from this book was not the legal, the political, or the organizational work around the problems of race, economy and housing . . . but the simple observation that hundreds of people in a neighborhood would allow themselves to be complicit in a crime of racial violence. I think this is a theme that is repeated often, and yet it needs more repetition: the ability of “ordinary,” “average,” even “innocent” people to become part of a large, violent injustice—and then to proceed to lie about it; to feel justified in it and not ashamed.
Also of interest in the narrative is the colorful depiction of the legal system, especially as used by Darrow. If I were a defense attorney, who better my role model than Darrow? He was not always a winner of cases, it’s true. But tactically, he was amazing. (In this book, Darrow and Murphy are heroes—nothing here to sully them) Most of his work is completed before the case even starts. The judge (Murphy) was a lucky stroke—but not the jury selection process. And it was clearly not for Darrow to proceed by the book. While law is no doubt different, today, I’m certain that his jury selection and cross-examination processes are oft-studied and imitated.
But, back to the subject. The narrative is defined by its beginning and end (says William Cronon in “A Place for Stories”) and the beginning sets the stage with the hot, tense fear of being trapped in a bungalow with an angry mob outside, and ends 35 years later when Ossian Smith shoots himself in the head, on the eve of the civil rights movement. Here is the one silent place where the reader is allowed to let the vast, troubling expanses just sit . . . and to wait for his own questions to form.