"The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History" (Borealis Books, 196 pages. $24.95), by Warren Read: As Warren Read sifted through his family history, he knew his discoveries wouldn't be pretty.
But even with lowered expectations, Read wasn't prepared for what he found — he's the great-grandson of a man who served time for instigating a notorious tragedy in which three black men were lynched for a fictitious crime.
Instead of hiding the secret as so many had done before him, Read decided to publicize the tragedy and apologize for his family's role in it. The result is his first book, "The Lyncher in Me," an unflinching memoir that traces Read's family dysfunction back through the generations to the night of the 1920 lynching.
The details of the attacks are riveting. The violence began after a young white couple visited the grounds of a traveling circus that had stopped in Duluth, Minn., that summer. For reasons unclear, the couple fabricated a story about how the woman was abducted and raped by a number of black circus workers.
In the ensuing uproar, six young black men were swept up and thrown into jail. But some didn't remain there for long. Within hours, a number of white men — including Louis Dondino, the author's great-grandfather — whipped a gathering crowd into a frenzy of violence.
The mob crashed its way into the cells of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton and Isaac McGhie, dragging the men across the street where a noose was hastily strung over a streetlight in the town square. Within minutes, the three were dead.
The shameful moment was captured in a photograph that was later turned into a postcard. Read includes the photo in his book, a surreal shot of a white crowd posing in front of two hanged men. The victims are bare-chested, their shirts in tatters around their bound wrists. It's easy to overlook the body of the third victim sprawled in the street.
Read is clearly ashamed of what happened — especially knowing his mother's grandfather played a central role.
But here's where the story starts to lag.
Throughout the first half of the book, Read describes his genealogical research in the context of his own childhood abuse. There are a number of digressions, including needless analogies comparing his family history to the plants in his garden. Still, these interruptions can be forgiven thanks to the fascinating accounts of the lynching and its consequences.
In the second half, though, the book takes more of a self-congratulatory tone.
Read seeks redemption by apologizing to the victims' families at the dedication of a memorial to the fallen men. Granted, what Read does takes courage, and the challenge of finding the proper words to comfort the victims' descendants is daunting. But he drones on in excessive detail about any number of unrelated events. It's as though he's more interested in showing off his writing skills than advancing the story.
For example, he devotes an entire page to the difficulty he had in finding the exit in a Kansas hotel. At another point he stops to offer some cows a clump of grass. The cows couldn't have cared less, he notes. Nor could the reader.
"The Lyncher in Me" has enough fascinating history and raw emotion to be sufficient on its face. The story might have been better served had Read condensed the aftermath into tighter, more meaningful prose.
Still, a reader who slogs through the meandering story line of the book's second half will be rewarded with a happy ending. Despite its shameful history and depressing background, Read's story ends on a high note — one of redemption, optimism and joy.