The Consequences of Complicity:
A Review of Pam Durban’s The Tree of Forgetfulness

Reviewed by Kathleen Brewin Lewis

The Tree of Forgetfulness
Pam Durban
Louisiana State University Press, 2012
Fiction (Novel)

171 pages

Pam Durban has done something exceptional with her third novel, The Tree of Forgetfulness. She has taken yet another painful account of an actual lynching—the sort of story you have to brace yourself to read—and spun it into a multifaceted, mesmerizing novel.

The book is set in Durban’s hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, and moves back and forth in time, from 1926, when the lynching of Bessie, Dempsey, and Albert Long takes place, to a 1980 funeral that reveals the reversals of fortune of the main characters. She tells her tale from varying points of view
those of the white, upper-middle class Aimar family; a reporter for the New York World who comes to town to investigate the killings; the Aimar’s black housekeeper, Minnie Settles, and her son, Zeke; the new sheriff; the secretary of the NAACP; and the unborn granddaughter of Aimar patriarch, Howard.

The book opens in June of 1943 as Howard Aimar, age 50, lies dying unexpectedly from a ruptured appendix. Semi-conscious and disoriented, he is troubled by the need “to get back to his office and start another fire and burn the papers he saved during the terrible autumn of 1926, when three colored people were killed and a New York reporter came down to accuse them all of murder.” (p. 8). He conjures a “curious grandchild,” an as-yet-to-be-born young woman to whom he will attempt to explain his involvement because, as Durban writes at the close of the first chapter, “When the future comes to demand an accounting from the past, it will not be denied.” (p. 9).

Durban’s book is compelling because it deals not with the out-and-out guilt of the men who actually kill the Longs, but with the shady moral ground and shared responsibility of the complicit: the people who stood by, watched the lynchings, and did nothing to stop them. Howard has spent the last 17 years of his life sweeping the heinous event under the proverbial carpet. But as he struggles on his deathbed to justify his inaction in both failing to stop the lynching and to disclose the names of the perpetrators, his future granddaughter asks him, “What do you call those who stand in a crowd and watch three murders? Are they onlookers? Bystanders? Witnesses? What do you call people who know and do not speak?” and “What do you call yourself?” Howard finally replies, “A coward.” (145-146).

Durban, the Doris Betts Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the 2001 winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award in fiction, which is sponsored by the Southern Regional Council, the University of Georgia Libraries, and the DeKalb County Public Library/Georgia Center for the Book. According to the University of Georgia Libraries website, the Lillian Smith Award “honors those authors who, through their writing, carry on Smith's legacy of elucidating the condition of racial and social inequity and proposing a vision of justice and human understanding.” Durban has also received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Whiting Writer's Award, and a James Michener Creative Writing Fellowship from the University of Iowa.

With this novel, Pam Durban continues her literary advocacy. Filled with smart writing, strong characterizations, and a distinctive “vision of justice,” The Tree of Forgetfulness is a memorable book.

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Kathleen Brewin Lewis is senior editor of Flycatcher.

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