Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: 'Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat' by Jon Michael Riley

North Carolina author Jon Michael Riley grew up in the South and worked in several textile mills in North Carolina and South Carolina. From his interesting bio at books end we discover the following pertinent (to this story) data: ‘His understanding of the workings of a cotton mill are still vivid. He attended and graduated from totally segregated high schools. A veteran New York studio/ location photographer with work syndicated worldwide, Jon and his wife Catherine relocated to a quiet mountain cove outside of Asheville, NC after Jon found himself in a health-related situation that made photography less possible. He began writing, attending writer’s workshops and conferences, and nurturing his interest in Irish history.’

Jon’s healthy Introduction offers deep insights to the story that will follow: ‘This is a work of fiction. Now that I have stated this particular parameter, I can say that much of this story actually happened as described. Then again, there’s a lot that is pure story telling. The American South where my family lived in the 1950s and 60s was mostly a quiet-but-seething battleground between people striving for their civil rights and others— the white supremacists— determined to thwart them and remain in the nineteenth century. Naturally, they would never think of themselves as such because they knew they were good Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Church of God parishioners. The origin of this novel began over a decade ago as an informal short essay on my high school years…this novel is the fleshed-out version, the one with all the pain of love, anguish of youth, and terror of being killed or maimed. The narrative is hung on lived and researched history, the words and memories of elders who provided first-person recollections of how things really were in rural North Carolina….Both my parents have died, and this story is a tribute to them: two New England middle-class textile-worker Baptists who, in the 1950s, quietly helped numerous African-American families and schools. As a child, I never paid much attention to what they were doing, but later in life it dawned on me just how far out on a limb they had gone to help their friends. This is their story.’

Given Jon’s heritage he shows many of the traits of the best of Irish writers – exquisite prose, raw compelling descriptive passages of the brutality of man and the horror (such as the incident described in Chapter One) of the racial schism of the South of the days about which he writes – but beyond that this is an impressive author with a unique voice that should place his book among the top lists for studies of the conflicts not unlike the ‘underground railroad’ of the past century.

Jon offers a summary that is minimal but a very open invitation to jump into this marvelously written novel: ‘Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat is a novel of love, desire, loyalty, and honor that affects the O'Rourkes, a relocated New England textile family who face entrenched white supremacy in a small North Carolina cotton mill town in 1960. The narrative follows multiple points of view with the main character being high-school age Brian, whose near death experience leads to love's exciting fulfillment.’ An aperitif, this, because it serve to open the door to one of the better novels of the year. Jon Michael Riley is a name to watch. He is gifted! Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, October 15

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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