The recent win by 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars has once again reminded us all that the United States is a great nation built on a terrible past. The complete and utter subjugation of one group of people to do the nation building of another is a scar that has still not healed in the United States. Bill Cheng attempts to unpack just a tiny part of this history in his debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog. (I’m not going to lie—I picked this up almost exclusively for its title. I’m a patriotic sucker like that.)
After the Great Flood of 1927, Robert Chatham is left alone. As he drifts around Mississippi, he finds that being an outsider in the deep south is not easy.
There is no question as to who the villains are in this piece. Off the top of my head, I can think of no white character that is kind to a black character for any extended period of time. And, one supposes, this is historically accurate. Though we might be in the early twentieth century here, we are closer in culture to 12 Years a Slave than we are to speeches about dreams.
And yet, despite the fact that this part of history is ripe for telling stories of injustice and heartbreak, Southern Cross feels somehow soulless. There is no question that the writing is excellent—Cheng’s evocation of a time and place is near flawless—but one can never feel truly close to these characters. Perhaps it is the constant narrative jumps—just as you get close to one person, you have to recalibrate your emotions to prepare for another depressing tale. These kinds of non-chronological narratives can allow authors to play with reader perceptions of events and characters, but the fact that Robert seems never to change in each episode leaves you wondering why bother doing it in the first place.
This is not to say there are not moments when Cheng’s ability to write matches his ability to evoke a human response from his characters. Sketches from Robert’s youth are gorgeous—there is one in particular where the three Chatham men are out hunting, only to be stumbled upon by a duo of white men who have no qualms about beating young black men to remind them of their place. It’s horrific, and the pain of the injustice of this society is keenly felt, unlike in many other places through the novel.
I am curious to see what Cheng does next. If he returns to this Southern Gothic-style tale, I would love to see him try and push the boundaries a little further. Though the politics and argument are there, they are not moulded into a piece of fiction that grabs you by the throat, that makes you feel for these people. Fiction is more than pretty words and big ideas—it’s about making your reader feel something.