Emmy award-winning Jeffrey Blount’s third novel, The Emancipation of Evan Walls, is a harrowing glimpse at the American South during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s, told through the eyes of a young black child struggling to overcome the obstacles in the way of his dream to forge a life for himself. The novel is a reflection on Evan’s painful experience being a sharp, intelligent child with courageous aspirations, who finds himself caught “in a crossfire of hate” between the black and white communities who force him into isolation.
The Emancipation of Evan Walls opens with Evan in 1993, welcoming the birth of his first child with his wife Izzy. What would be a time of celebration for most only creates a growing fear in Evan that he realizes he can no longer avoid. Evan, terrified that his daughter will face the same trauma he lived through, decides to finally open up to his wife about the childhood experience he has hidden away from her for years.
Evan’s story begins in 1968 in the town of Canaan, Virginia. In the middle of a discussion between the adults in town mourning the stagnancy of the Civil Rights movement, Evan makes a dangerous proclamation. He declares his solution to the hopelessness at hand: he wants to be somebody and get out of Canaan for good.
Evan’s dream is faced with fierce backlash, as his community interprets his aspirations as insult and abandonment. His great-grandmother, Mama Jennie, one of the few people who support him, explains, “They mad at you ‘cause when you become something, you toss all them lost chances right back up into they faces. It hurts.”
When Canaan schools are eventually integrated, Evan’s troubles worsen. Shunned by the white kids in class who hate him because he is black and excommunicated by the black kids in school who accuse him of trying to be white, Evan is thrust into a deep loneliness. His intelligence and success are met with bitter racism by his white classmates, and nicknames such as Uncle Tom and Snowball from his black classmates. Evan is left to cope with the help of a few friends, the guidance of his mentor Bojack and the wise Mama Jennie, and the power of his dream for a better life.
In The Emancipation of Evan Walls, Blount masterfully captures the raw sense of solitude faced by Evan, a young child who at once is forced to grapple with the hateful force of racism at work against him coupled with the fear that he is not black enough for his community in Canaan. Throughout the novel, however, Evan’s isolation is mended by the comforting relief brought by the wisdom of Mama Jennie and his mentor Bojack. Both characters are constructed with a tenderness that gives both Evan and readers a resistant hope throughout the novel. Blount’s account of Evan’s childhood is not only a blunt and sharply painful reflection on identity, resilience, and injustice, but it also a powerful meditation on healing, companionship, and overcoming oppression. Blount’s voice is clear and honest and does not shy away from exploring the difficulties of outliving trauma.
At the end of the novel, returning to his present life with his wife and child, the re-opening of Evan’s wounds begins to let him heal as his confession sets him on the path to closure. After all, as he reflects earlier in the novel, “You see, the thing about shame is that it grows from within, and only the person feeling it can put it to rest.”
Jeffrey Blount will be leading a talk on his novel, The Emancipation of Evan Walls, as well as issues of racism and social injustice on Wednesday, February 5th, at 6:00 pm at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Admission is free, but reservations are requested. For more information and to reserve your spot, you can head to Southern Lit Alliance’s website at https://www.southernlitalliance.org/jeffrey-blount.