Those We Thought We Knew by David Joy

On September 8, I attended the final event in David Joy’s book tour for his novel Those We Thought We Knew. As he opened that discussion, he invited all of us to sit in our discomfort as we engaged in civil discourse about a difficult subject—race and its legacy in our country. While not the subject of his novel, it is the context and a large part of the conflict within it. Because the novel takes place within thirty minutes of where I live, this book and the conversation that evening really hit home.

The story is about a woman in college at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, NC. Her grandmother lives in Sylva where her mother was raised. However, she grew up mostly in Atlanta and came to school at WCU to confront the racism she had felt her whole life, just simmering below the surface. The personification of that is a confederate statue in a place of prominence in downtown Sylva. This statue is not made up for the story. It actually still exists. She decides to bring attention to it in a way that kicks up a hornet’s nest and sets the story going.

While the novel is primarily a mystery, it deals with the differing experience of white and black in the mountains of western North Carolina. This is seen at its most challenging in the relationship between the sheriff (white) and the young woman’s grandmother (black). They grew up together, and the sheriff and her late husband went fishing and hunting together regularly as adults. At one point, they have an uncomfortable discussion. The sheriff is confused about why everything is getting stirred up. It was never like that before. Maybe other places, but not there. The grandmother eventually feels the need to point out to him that it was always there, but because he is white he has never had to deal with it.

The mystery is gripping and the storytelling is marvelous. The author really understands how to bring out the beauty in his descriptions of the mountains. But this is not a comfortable story. It’s not meant to be. At the book talk, the author made the point that the work that needs doing on race is work for white folks. And we need to stop asking for black folks to do that work. White supremacy and racism are problems created by white people that can only be addressed by white people. The author’s hope is that this book can help bring people together to have uncomfortable conversations in safe places like around kitchen tables similar to that where the sheriff and the grandmother talked, knowing that they are safe in their love for each other.

I highly encourage you to read this book and watch the video of the book talk.

My rating: 5/5

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