The long-awaited revival of the Oswald Distinguished Writers Series is almost upon us. A victim of the many event cancellations attendant upon the onslaught of the pandemic, the series is returning Oct. 26 with an in-person reading at USC Aiken’s Etherredge Center.
The featured writer this fall is Pam Durban, an Aiken native who went on to become a professor of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and the author of award-winning novels and short story collections. Durban’s most notable recent appearance in our fair city was as the keynote speaker at the statewide humanities festival hosted in Aiken in 2018. At that three-day event, she spoke twice, once at the municipal building auditorium, reading her Aiken-based tale “The Cure,” and once at the Center for African American History, Art and Culture, where she read from her 2012 novel “The Tree of Forgetfulness.” The latter event was one of the most memorable book-related experiences that I can recall. The audience was enthralled by the author’s account of what she had learned about a shameful moment in our county’s history.
The title “The Tree of Forgetfulness” applies, to some extent, to the collective amnesia often imposed by a community following any event that threatens its long-cherished self-identity. In this case, the happening in question was the real-life vigilante killing of three African Americans by a small mob of vengeful white men in 1926.
The bare facts of this breach of justice are as follows. In the autumn of that year, three members of the Lowman family were taken from the county jail – the sheriff at the time may or may not have been complicit in their abduction – and driven to a wooded area north of town where they were gunned down in cold blood. About five months earlier, the three victims – two men and one woman – had been arrested for the murder of the previous sheriff during an armed raid of their house outside Monetta during which the family matriarch was also killed. Who fired the first shot – the raiding party or the suspected bootleggers – is not known; but when the verdicts in the first trial were overturned and the three were incarcerated while awaiting a second hearing, some local armed and masked men took the law into their own hands and meted out their own brand of “frontier justice” in a forest clearing.
When the outside world learned of this deed, Aikenites “circled their wagons” and refused to talk about what they knew or suspected. As a result, no one ever came to trial, and Aiken, thanks largely to a month-long series of articles by an investigative reporter from the New York World, became, for a time, a “sore spot in South Carolina.” Despite its “lovely atmosphere of peace under its drooping trees,” wrote journalist Oliver H.P. Garrett, “Aiken is as lawless a community” as one can find anywhere in the Jim Crow South.
For her novel, Durban took the bare bones of this narrative and fleshed in a fuller, fictionalized account of the event and its aftermath. The plot, which begins in 1943 but flashes back for most of the book to 1926 before it returns to 1943 and then forward to 1980, is told through a variety of voices. Some of those narrators are clearly based on participants in the real-life drama, including a swaggering New York newspaper man named Curtis N.R. Barrett, and some are composites like Howard Aimer, the mild-mannered insurance agent who witnesses the forest carnage and is forever haunted by the memory.
Durban quotes, as the first epigraph of the book, a Brazilian proverb, which reads as follows: “When blood has been spilled, the tree of forgetfulness will not flourish.” So it is for the principal characters in this engrossing narrative, individuals whose lives are forever altered, both consciously and subconsciously, by one violent act whose perpetrators the citizens of one small Southern town, some out of conviction and most out of fear, protect from retribution.
At the time that this column goes to press, Durban has chosen to focus her Oct. 26 program on the title story of her short story collection “Soon,” published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2015. When this book appeared in print, no less a luminary than Pat Conroy proclaimed Durban “one of America’s finest writers.” The story itself presents the reader with what short fiction writer Mary Hood describes as “time-haunted portraits” of three generations of women from a single Augusta area family.
Durban’s talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. on the main stage of the Etherredge Center; the one-hour presentation, free and open to the public, will be followed by a book signing in the lobby. Masks are required, and social distancing will be enforced.
As a special feature of the evening program, both Durban and Andrew Geyer will receive formal acknowledgment of their induction into the state’s literary hall of fame, the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Because of the pandemic, last year’s in-person induction was cancelled; the occasion of Durban’s Aiken visit this month provides the SCAA board of governors with a chance to honor both 2020 inductees on stage right before the reading.