Asking a writer to select their favorite novel is akin to asking a foodie to select their favorite dish: there are so many flavors and styles to consider, that picking one that you like above all others often seems arbitrary and very, very fluid. Today I may be enamored with South American Magic Realism; next month, Nigerian Protest Literature; and the month after British Graphic Novels. Keep that in mind as I tell you about my current favorite novel, David Bradley’s 1981 novel “The Chaneysville Incident”.
Set in three different eras in rural Chaneysville, Pennsylvania, “The Chaneysville Incident” is a story within a story, told in a flashback. The novel is about history, and how it lives with is, informs us, and passes through us, as we pass into it. Of course, the protagonist is a historian, on a quest to find out more about himself and his father through those who knew him best. In the process, he learns more than he expected, and deepens his understanding of the world at large.
What makes the novel so engaging is Bradley’s sense of time and place. Each period depicted in the novel is distinct, and deals with completely different social realities. Chaneysville of 1980 is a different world than Chaneysville of 1940, of course. And both are clearly worlds away from the Chaneysville of 1850. Yet, in a way, all three are very much alike.
While it is definitely methodical in pace initially, the novel eventually unfolds itself before us, and the reader joins the protagonist on a voyage through his family’s past, and the past of his larger community. We learn that some concepts – family, love, freedom, compassion, hate, greed – just are , regardless of era. We also learn that how each era knows these concepts is so absurdly fluid, that we may be lucky to know some of them in our ways. And we may be completely damned to know some of them in our ways, as well.
If I seem to be obtuse in describing this book to you, it’s purposeful; I could describe the narrative to you, and I’d be certain to alienate many people, tragically. Let’s just say it deals with some ugly truths of our country and it’s history of enslavement and class abuse. Let’s also say it’s about love, and regret, and looking at the past, and your ancestors, through new eyes. It also happens to have one of the most excitingly desperate chase scenes I’ve ever read. In fact the final third of the novel would make a stunning film by itself. As it is, it brings to a fitting close my current favorite novel.