I read Bernice L. McFadden’s novel about the tragedy of Emmett Till without knowing details about the historical event. Her seductive story explores the how and why of his murder in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955, beginning decades before the incident and concluding 50 years later. Emmett Till’s death claimed the nation’s attention, thanks in part to his mother, who demanded an open casket, so the world could witness what white racists had done to her black son. The incident ignited the fledgling, modern civil rights movement into a raging fire.
Some historical background: Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Chicago black boy who came to Money to visit relatives. He whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, unaware of racist rules in the Jim Crow South. Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law brutally murdered Emmett for what he did. The boy’s savagely beaten body was found in the Tallahatchie River. The accused, Roy Bryant and J. W. Millam, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. In 1956, protected by double jeopardy, they brazenly confessed to Emmett’s murder in Look magazine.
I chose to read Gathering of Waters not only to understand better the Emmett Till story, but also because I was intrigued by the narrator — Money, Mississippi. It is such an odd choice for a narrator, and yet it’s the prefect vehicle for a detached viewpoint that sweeps over generations. It’s a wise, experienced, confident and gentle voice, almost grandfatherly, and because towns don’t talk in real life, we’re alerted immediately this story will stretch the imagination.
At the start of the book, Money tells us:
“Listen, if you choose to believe nothing else that transpires here, believe this: your body does not have a soul; your soul has a body, and souls never, ever die.”
This phenomenon is first illustrated in the story by a whore named Esther. In the early 20th century, after her death, she jumps into the body of a little girl named Doll Hilson, who then displays the whore’s personality. As she grows up, Doll’s lust destroys families, including her own. Doll dies in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Esther then takes up residence in the body of a drowned boy, J. W. Millam, who comes back to life.
We reach this first connection to Emmett’s history two-thirds into the book. That can feel like a long stretch of reading, when you’re anticipating a real life event that’s driving the plot. I can’t claim this as a drawback, however, because had I known more about the Emmett Till story, I likely wouldn’t have had such restless anticipation to get to August 1955. Even so, a brief note about real events, or the people of the events, at the front of this fictionalized history would make a difference and give the story more power for those less in the know. When I read about Esther and the drowned boy, I didn’t know J. W. Millam was one of Emmett’s killers.
Under McFadden’s vision, we read a sentimental, innocent reason behind Emmett’s whistling at Carolyn Bryant. Also, there’s no dwelling on the kidnapping, mutilation and murder of the 14-year-old boy, rather enough in the narrative so we feel the horror of it, including the injustice that took place at Bryant and Millam’s trial. Thereafter, the author introduces Emmett’s spirit. It is not an eerie or demanding presence, rather a wanting of togetherness with Tass Hilson, who is the grand-daughter of Doll Hilson and also the girl Emmett kissed hours before he was taken from his bed at night and killed.
Thanks to McFadden’s exquisite creativity, we have a more peaceful ending for Emmett Till, and a marvelous wish for love and kindness, from that unusual narrator, Money, Mississippi.
To read more about the murder of Emmett Till, here are some resources:
- From the PBS American Experience history series, “The Murder of Emmett Till: The brutal killing that mobilized the civil rights movement.”
- From Crime Magazine, the Emmett Till story, which includes: “After an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Till’s two killers, the case festered for 49 years until the U.S. Justice Department reopened it in 2004. In late February of 2007, a Lefore County, Miss., grand jury declined to issue any new indictments, effectively bringing the case to an abrupt and ignoble end.”
- From The Smithsonian, an interview with Emmett’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who was with Emmett the night he was murdered. The occasion for the interview was The Smithsonian’s acquisition of Emmett’s coffin in 2009. After the re-investigation of the murder in Mississippi 2005, the coffin could not be re-interred.
- From Traveling with Twain: In Search of America’s Identity, a photo of the country store where Emmett whistled at Carolyn Bryant.