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Those Bones Are Not My Child: A novel Hardcover – September 28, 1999
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On a Friday night in July 1979, the first victim in what would come to be called the Atlanta Child Murders disappeared. Over the course of two years, more than 40 African American children would die--abused, mutilated, strangled--before an arrest in 1981 apparently settled the issue. Wayne Williams, a black man, was accused, tried, and convicted of the murders, and the good citizens of Atlanta breathed easy again, assured that the crimes had not been racially motivated after all, and that the criminal was behind bars.
Or was he? In her posthumously published novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child, Toni Cade Bambara revisits the summer of 1980 and suggests a chilling alternative:
The terror is over, the authorities say. The horror is past, they repeat every day. There've been no new cases of kidnap and murder since the arrest back in June. You've good reason to know that the official line is a lie. But you sweep the walk briskly all the way to the hedge, as though in clearing the leaves you can clear from your mind all that you know. You'd truly like to know less. You want to believe. It is 3:23 on your Mother's Day watch. And your child is nowhere in sight.The protagonist of Bambara's novel is Marzala Rawls Spencer, an African American mother of three who is managing--just--to raise her family, hold down three jobs, and attend night school. When her 12-year-old son, Sundiata, doesn't return from a camping trip, Zala finds herself plunged into the nightmarish possibility that he has become the latest victim in the series of murders rocking the "City Too Busy to Hate." As she and her estranged husband, Spence, frantically attempt to discover what has happened to their child, the book takes them through the complicated morass of politics, race relations, and class that bedevil Atlanta--and perhaps obstruct the search for the true killer.
Bambara worked on Those Bones Are Not My Child for 12 years before her death in 1995. Toni Morrison edited the manuscript for publication, and though the occasional rough edge shows through, the well-drawn characters and inherent human drama in this stranger-than-fiction tale overcome its minor weaknesses. This is the novel Toni Cade Bambara will be remembered for, and rightly so. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
At the time of her death in 1995, acclaimed author, activist and educator Bambara (Gorilla, My Love; The Salt Eaters) had spent 12 years working on what her friend and editor Toni Morrison calls a "magnum opus." Bambara lived in Atlanta during the two years in which more than 40 children, mostly black boys under 15, were abducted and gruesomely murdered. Her luminous novel draws on a wealth of investigative material, historical detail and family stories, and puts to good use her gifts for passionate storytelling and incisive cultural criticism. The Spencer family, whose oldest son is missing, serves as the fictional anchor. When 12-year-old Sonny fails to come home one night, his anguished mother, Marzala, finds that the police have a pervasive lack of interest in her missing child. Zala and her estranged husband, Vietnam vet Spence, join the Committee to Stop Children's Murders, an activist citizens' group organized by Atlanta parents who are disillusioned with the authorities' indifference to the killings. The cast of characters includes the Spencers' friends, extended family, police, federal investigators, Atlanta officials and the STOP volunteers who search the city seeking leads and patterns, exploring Klan connections and suspicions of a child porn ring. Bambara's thorough re-creation of the STOP committee's work in the book's long middle section comes at the expense of narrative pacing; the story bogs down while the endless theories, tips, hunches and strategies take center stage. Two crucial developmentsAthe arrest of Wayne Williams and a fateful turn for SonnyArefocus the tale on the Spencers. The difficult truths they face are devastating. Bambara gives us an indelible, intimate and moving portrait of an American family, while at the same time producing a landmark work that achieves a potent immediacy as she sagaciously explores the far-reaching issuesAracial, personal, politicalAat stake in one of the 20th century's most horrifying murder cases. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Let's start with the title, "Those Bones Are Not My Child"...when I read the chapter in which those words were uttered by a parent of a missing child it gave me chills. That anyone would have to identify a child of theirs by reaching under a sheet and feeling a skull, knee or shoulder bone to seek recognition is heart wrenching. The writing, in parts is so good I could not put it down. In other areas there was so much detail about things not really related to the story that I found myself skipping pages just to get to the next informational part (something I never normally do). I also found it hard to follow some of the characters. Names of people would pop up without any detail of who they were and how they were related, which forced me to back track looking for a previous reference - which I rarely found.
I have stuck it out to the end with this book and it was worth the effort. I gained insight into the investigation. I was 20 at the time these incidents occured and accepted the fact that Wayne Williams was guilty of this awful killing spree. Reading this book, and living another 25 + years has taught me that things are seldom what they seem. Does it seem likely that one person could be responsible for the numerous missing and murdered children? NO. Could there be a connection to child pornography &/or the KKK? Absolutely. Will the truth ever come out? Doubtful.
Author Toni Cade Bambara was living in Atlanta at the time of the murders, and after several children's bodies were found but officials seemed unconcerned, she began keeping a journal. She filled twelve notebooks, which she spent more than a decade revising into a historical novel. By the time she died in 1995, she had drafted an imposing manuscript, animated by her vexed fascination with America's latest racial Catch-22: that blacks who suspect authorities of prejudice are paranoid, or themselves prejudiced, because our society is now color-blind.
Bambara isn't a one-sided social critic. "Those Bones Are Not My Child" blames black communities for their quietism after the Civil Rights movement: "The ballot secured, reps in office, … folks had laid down their weapons in the public square and sauntered off to read the papers." In Bambara's view all Americans today are chasing the good life instead of social justice. Still, in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, hundreds of black citizens became activists like Bambara's protagonist, Zala. Weary from the difficulties of raising Sonny in a world dangerous to black males, and now traumatized by his disappearance, Zala is feisty, too. She and her husband join STOP, a group of parents trying to energize a lukewarm, lagging investigation into the killings.
Readers are plunged into the daily round of a community in crisis whose situation is ignored, misunderstood, or exploited by powers-that-be. STOP urges civic leaders to declare a public emergency - something is menacing Atlanta's children, even if it's not an organized vendetta against black youth. But the official view is that systematic or racist violence can't happen in "the city too busy to hate." Stories about serial killings would be bad PR for an Atlanta ambitious to be a world-class location for corporations, conventions, even a future Olympics. Zala finds it infuriating that the minimal publicity given the case treats the parents as primary suspects. Worse, when evidence clears the parents, officials speculate that the children were narcotics runners murdered by ghetto druglords, or runaways from family poverty and neglect who met with fatal accidents.
Bambara shows that when citizens can't trust authorities to be diligent or impartial, rumors multiply. Someone in the black community hears that whites are kidnapping their boys to use in porn films and snuff flicks, but that all evidence implicating whites is being suppressed. Others say that an official deliberately lost a recording of a Klansman's boasts about participating in the murders. Still others insist that the 1980 explosion in a black daycare center that killed four children must be from KKK dynamite, not a flaw in the building's ancient boiler. The arrest of a black man looks like a predictable gambit in a white cover-up, especially because now newspapers jump to give the case daily front-page prominence at last.
Small wonder that Atlanta's black community comes to view the trial of the accused man, Wayne Williams, as a white frame-up. Williams is charged with two killings and convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, mainly fibers found on the bodies of victims. According to the grapevine, Caucasian hairs were also found but prosecutors ignored that detail, and they apply the fiber evidence to the other murders only because they want all the cases closed even if a killer is still at large. In sum, Bambara's novel shows us what it's like to live hours, days, and years in the midst of beleaguered fear, mistrust, and indignation.
So it's an important story for all Americans, although the book is overlong - the anguish of parents as they seek their missing children, build theories, and witness official inaction is a slender plot on which to hang 600+ pages. Had Bambara lived longer, she might have cut the manuscript. She does try to heighten drama by elaborating sensory detail and starting chapters like short stories whose temporarily withheld explanations might tantalize a reader, but these strategies often prove distracting. Still, the first half of the book compels attention, and domestic scenes with the Spencer family are deft and moving throughout the narrative. The final two chapters become gripping as the mystery of Sonny's disappearance is solved.
In any case, we choose a historical novel for more than just its novelistic technique, and we can't choose a different novel on the subject - there are no others. I'm grateful that Bambara wrote the manuscript before she died and that Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison shepherded it through posthumous publication.