'Natchez Burning' is bold look at civil rights movement

By Oline H. Cogdill, Associated Press
Posted5/3/2014 5:30 AM
  • "Natchez Burning" by Greg Iles tops off at 800 pages.

    "Natchez Burning" by Greg Iles tops off at 800 pages. ASSOCIATED PRESS/WILLIAM MORROW

Greg Iles' fourth novel about Natchez, Miss., lawyer Penn Cage is a bold look at the civil rights movement, bigotry, parental love and the legacy of violence wrapped in a solid plot that starts in 1964 and deftly alternates to 2005 without missing a beat.

The comprehensive history of the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi told in "Natchez Burning" is comparable to novels such as James Michener's "Hawaii" in its breadth and scope.

But as fascinating as the plot is, "Natchez Burning" almost sinks under its own weight. Topping off at 800 pages, this first novel in a trilogy is marred by repetitive scenes and one-dimensional villains. While there's little doubt that each scene is authentically devised, the shock factor lessens with each telling, and the story would have been stronger at half its length.

Dr. Tom Cage is one of the most respected citizens in Natchez, and is idolized by his son Penn. Tom is accused in the death of his former nurse, Viola Turner. Viola, dying of cancer, returned to her hometown after nearly 40 years. Tom had been secretly treating her. Her son, Lincoln, charges that Tom helped hasten his mother's death with a lethal injection.

The case links back to Natchez during the 1960s. Several area black men, including Viola's brother, were targeted by the Double Eagles, a violent offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. Penn's attempts to learn Tom's connection to the Double Eagles and his past with Viola lead to some uncomfortable truths about his father.

No matter how much Penn thinks of his father, a man who raised his children to believe in equality for all men, Penn is reminded of a quote about great men: "There is always something."

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