A young pregnant woman is drowned. An ambitious young man is accused of killing her to clear the way for an advantageous marriage. Sounds an awful lot like An American Tragedy (or its film counterpart, A Place in the Sun), right? And like Theodore Dreiser, John Milliken Thompson based his story on a true story. But where Dreiser used the circumstances to explore the American drive for advancement, Thompson focuses more on the psychology of the event’s key players, making this a more intimate and personal story.
In 1885, the year Lillian Madison was found dead in the Richmond city reservoir, Virginia was overshadowed by the Civil War but beginning to make the painful transition towards a more modern society. Still, the divisions between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, black and white, and rural and urban are evident in Thompson’s rendering of this complicated time. But one element has not changed: Bible-based morality still publicly governed society, and inevitably the lowest person on the social ladder is the unmarried pregnant woman.
There is a sort of foursome at the heart of this story – brothers Tommie and Willie Cluverius, Lillian Madison, and Nola Bray. Willie and Lillian have had a playfully romantic relationship, but free-spirited Lillie wants more than the staid Willie is going to give her. Willie isn’t certain whether Lillie is trustworthy, wondering if the dark stories she’s told him about her father are true. Nola is the daughter of one of the wealthiest and best connected families in the community, an asset for Tommie’s ambitions. However, “her beauty was the kind that would not last much beyond her youth,” a trait that keeps the libidinous Tommie from pursuing Nola with ardor. Tommie also has a wild streak that both young women recognize, even if he himself doesn’t. Nola wants to control it; Lillie responds to it, and the foursome is reduced to two people who eventually give in to their desire for each other.
When Lillie tells Tommie she is pregnant, he dithers and delays until eight months have gone by. At an appointed time, he meets Lillie, accompanies her to the reservoir and is present when she dies. While we know from the start that Tommie was at the reservoir, we, along with the public, must wait to discover how Lillie drowned. We do know that Tommie lies throughout his trial, taking the tack that he didn’t know Lillie was in Richmond that night, but his conviction – built on the flimsiest of evidence – is still a surprise. Like most of the onlookers, commentators, and prosecutors, we know he is guilty. The difference is that readers aren’t sure of what. Tommie even offers competing versions of the night’s events to his brother, but the stories don’t add up to a definite answer. After Tommie’s death, with so many loose ends left, Willie has a revelation – “that it doesn’t matter what he believes, that the only thing you can count on in faith, as in love, is that the ground is going to shift under you.” Readers of this book are well advised to keep that in mind.
Thompson also evokes the feel of a definite time and place while constructing this tragedy. In a rural community, the arresting officers sit down for dinner with the accused and his family. People gather on a street corner to listen to a fire-breathing preacher. Two young couples drowse in innocent familiarity on the banks of a river, listening to poetry and cicadas humming in the trees. And refined alcoholism, brothels, discreet indiscretions, and child abuse are all kept well beneath the surface of public appearance. We might think those were simpler times, but Thompson has found a way to remind us that the human heart is never simple.
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