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Historical Ficton Review   

 

 

The City of Churches
by Kenneth Robbins
New South Books, 2004
Hardcover, $25.95 (320 pages)
ISBN: 1-58838-142-0
 
 
 

Veteran novelist and playwright Kenneth Robbinsís latest work is a novel reflecting the southís ever present tension between past and present, especially where race is concerned. The City of Churches is set in Birmingham, Alabama, (though never directly named) of both 1963 and 1993. Robbins uses a counterpoint structure, with the emphasis on the historic events of 1963, to tell a story of two families caught up in the heat of racial turmoil that brings them into fatal conflict just as the riots of 1963 came to be emblematic of the racial divide of the time. 

There are two protagonists here, Rider Mears and Charles Hornsby, Jr.: the former the son of a junkman, now minister returned home to the famous Fourteenth Street Baptist Church; the latter a professor and son of a police officer who wants to know the truth of his fatherís involvement in the violence of 1963. Both men, black and white, enact the return of the prodigal in their respective ways, as so many southerners have done since the changes in the racial climate since the 1960s. 

One of the novelís strengths is that Robbins does not oversimplify the problem of race in the south. He shows us some of the range of attitudes and positions, often driven by inertia and custom as well as racial hatred that generate to this day the racial divide in America.  

Robbinsís novel deals with the bombing of the Fourteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 without sensationalizing it or taking the easy road of making it the center of the book. Published the same year new indictments have been handed down in that bombing, the pervasive irony of The City of Churches is that in a city filled with houses of worship people were regularly denied access to churches because of their race and a church could be blown up on a Sunday morning. 

The City of Churches suggests in its conclusion that while we have come a long way we still have a long way to go, and if that isnít an entirely original assessment of race in the south (and in America) it is nevertheless true. 

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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