By Post Staff
The many followers of the writings of local writer J. Douglas Allen-Taylor may be surprised by the subject of the Oakland journalist’s first novel, “Sugaree Rising,” but it’s going to be a good surprise.
Instead of the up-to-date Bay Area political breakdown we’re so used to hearing from Allen-Taylor, he has chosen something farther away in time and distance: the government-planned flooding out of a largely-African-American community in rural South Carolina during the Depression years.
Loosely based upon actual historical events, “Sugaree Rising” shows how Black resistance operated in the time long before the civil rights period, in an era when lynchings were common and the Klan was in power, and Black People in the Deep South risked their lives when speaking out against whites.
But “Sugaree Rising” is much, much more than a protest novel.
In the isolated fictional community of Yelesaw Neck, where the novel’s story takes place, Allen-Taylor has created a remarkable landscape in which colorful characters flourish, ghosts and haunts and spirits wander the swamps and woods, back-porch stories are common, and people still practice the old religions they brought with them from Africa.
One of the most interesting and memorable of Sugaree’s characters is Budi Manigault, grandfather to 15 year old heroine Yally Kinlaw, who we meet out on the porch one hot summer night in a scene that reminds you of the best writing of Zorah Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison:
“He suddenly stiffened on the swing, bracing his feet against the porchboards, and turning to look out into the dark towards the side yard, he put his hand up to shush her. She turned to the direction he was looking at but could see nothing in the wide expanse of the pitch-black of the yard beyond the little circle of the porch lamp.
“What wrong, Grandpa?” she asked him.
“That som’bitch been sneaking around here, of a night,” Papa’Budi said. “I’m’a catch him, though.”
“He got himself up to his feet and walked across the porch and into the house. He was back out again almost immediately with his shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm. He sat back down on the swing-still careful not to make it sing out-and set the gun on his lap. Then, without any warning whatsoever, with no attempt at a sighting or an aiming but only a slight adjustment of the direction of the barrel, he squeezed off the shot. There was a bright spurt of flame from the shotgun barrel and a sharp, explosive crack. The girl jumped and, much too late to have any effect, cupped her hands over her ears.
“You ain’t got for fret no more about him,” he said. “I done gotted him good, this time. I done shotted that yellow bastard.”
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor’s “Sugaree Rising” is an instant classic, a timeless novel of insight and important human themes that highlights the author’s considerable writing and storytelling talents. It belongs on the shelf alongside those of the best of our writers.
“Sugaree Rising,” Freedom Voices Publishers of San Francisco, 400 pages, $24.95. Available Dec. 1 at local bookstores and online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. A book release party for “Sugaree Rising” will be held on Thursday, Dec. 6, 6 p.m., at the Joyce Gordon Gallery at 406 14th St. in downtown Oakland.