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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Eyes of Willie McGee

by Alex Heard
416 pages

*** About the Book ***

The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow SouthMississippi, 1945: Willamette Hawkins, a white woman, accuses Willie McGee, a black man, of breaking into her home and raping her. The public is enraged and demands the death penalty for McGee. McGee, traumatized by his treatment in jail, doesn’t speak a word at his first trial. During the course of the next 10 years, the case is appealed again and again. Eventually McGee tells his lawyers that he and Hawkins had a long-term affair and that when he tried to end it, she accused him of rape. Hawkins denies this and sues the newspaper for slander for reporting it.  In the end, nothing can stop the courts from sending McGee to the electric chair. But the story doesn’t end there.

Fifty years later the legacy of McGee’s trial continues to impact the next generation. Hawkins’s daughters stand by their mother’s claim of rape and seek to re-establish her reputation as an honorable woman. McGee’s children and grandchildren remain furious at the courts and the government for their treatment of McGee and for supporting a woman who claimed to be his wife but actually was not.

This is a true story.

*** Why I Read It ***

I’ve wanted to read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for quite some time and this book was described as being similar in content. Plus it was a true story – bonus! Thanks to Regal Literary for sending me a copy.

*** My Thoughts ***

This book is fascinating. It examines the racial politics of the pre-civil rights era American South and the anti-communist craze of the early Cold War era and shows how these forces came together to deprive Willie McGee of a fair trial. The author doesn’t try to prove whether McGee is guilty or not; too much time has passed and there are too many conflicting stories. Rather he details the political and social forces that led the trial to turn out the way it did.

The parts of the story that were most interesting to me were those involving the legacy of the case. The author tracked down the children and grandchildren of McGee and Hawkins and showed how the trial continues to impact the present generation. The families’ differing reactions to the facts he uncovers and to the trial in general really made me think.

I started reading this book on the train to BEA at the end of May and I just finished it during my vacation at the end of June. Reading non-fiction takes more concentration for me than does reading fiction, so there were several times when I had to put the book aside for a few days. Every time I picked it back up I was excited to get back into the story though. It is not particularly long but it is very detailed and I really enjoyed learning about this time and place.

*** Your Thoughts ***

I haven’t seen any other reviews of this book yet – did I miss yours? Let me know and I’ll add it here
Does this book sound like one you’d enjoy? If you’ve read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, do you see any similarities between the two books?


Erika Robuck said...


This book sounds fascinating. It reminds me of A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest Gaines. It was heartwrenching, but truly once of the best books I've ever read.

Thanks for the review!

bermudaonion said...

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but when I do, I want it to read like fiction, so this may not be for me.

Heather J. said...

Erika - I've seen the movie version of the Gaines book - it is worth reading the book as well?

bermudaonion - This definitely does not read like fiction, so I'd say it not the kind of book for you. :)

Tracey said...

If you're interested in other non-fiction books that deal with racial politics and social policy and the lasting legacy and consequences of such you might enjoy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It's a blend of scientific and sociology non-fiction but was an absolutely fascinating read. I really enjoyed it and the author's diligence and hardwork at tracking Henrietta Lacks' ancestors down is admirable. I bought the e-book version and LOVED it tho' I'm not sure it's something I'd reread so it might have more potential as a library book. It's also one of those books that are on the shortlist for holiday gifts for anybody I know who's involved with science either via work or academics.

Heather J. said...

Tracey - That book is already on my TBR list - I can't wait to read it!

Tracey said...

Awesome! Plus the book takes place in MD and VA so it's got some local history in there, too :)

Ryan G said...

I'm going to be adding this one to my wishlist. The story sounds fascinating and one I want to delve into a bit more. Thanks for the review.

Jenny said...

I've been wondering how this one was. Sounds interesting how the author interviewed family members now about everything. I may have to read this one. (But I want to read TKAM first!!)

Heather J. said...

Ryan - I hope you get a chance to read it soon!

Jenny - I really enjoyed it, but now I DEFINITELY have to read TKAM. :)

Trisha said...

This sounds fantastic. Yet another book to add to the TBR list!

Heather J. said...

Trisha - I think this one is right up your alley!

Dreamybee said...

This sounds like an interesting story; I hate to say it, but I'm surprised he survived long enough for 10 years of appeals in that time and place.

This reminds me of a book I read called Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard. If you enjoyed this one, you might enjoy that one as well.

Jennifer (Crazy-for-Books) said...

I will be reading this one soon. It sounds fascinating! Thanks for the review!

Heather J. said...

Dreamybee - I was surprised by that too! The whole situation is just CRAZY.

Jennifer - I hope you enjoy it - I certainly did!

Jen - devourer of books said...

I have a copy of this I need to get to, so I'm glad you loved it!

Heather J. said...

Jen - I'm a huge non-fiction fan, so this was definitely my kind of book. I hope you enjoy it as well.

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