Well Considered by Richard Morris was the book discussed this week at a local book club in Prince George’s County, MD. The author’s wife was invited to attend and comment regarding the writing of the novel which Morris published in 2010.
Random papers and selected artifacts pulled for “show-and-tell” were revealing, even for someone this close to the writing and research for the novel. One such paper was a table compiled by the author, “Resident Population by Race, Prince George’s County,” which not only illustrated “white flight,” in which 316,648 white residents left the County between 1970 and 2002, but also that the Black population was at 68.57% (of 20,589) in 1810, declined to 8.68% (of 357,395) in 1960, and by 2002 was back up to 64.40% (of 833,677).
Another artifact was a newspaper report from the 2006 Washington Post, in Richard Morris’s files but unable to be located online, titled “Racial Slurs Make For Ugly Commute” by Ovetta Wiggins. Obviously the basis for the opening scene of Well Considered, the newspaper article described that, “Racist slurs spray-painted on a church and a nearby sound barrier disrupted the morning commute on Route 450 in Bowie yesterday, with several drivers pulling over to the side of the road to stare in disbelief … Traffic slowed to a crawl as drivers strained to get a better look, shook their heads and urgently dialed their cellphones … Members of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks hate groups, characterized the graffiti as the worst they had seen in the Washington Area in 15 years.”
Book club members remembered this scene from the book and had not realized how fact-based it was. They remembered thinking while reading that passers-by would not have paid much attention to the hate-filled graffiti. This is probably more a testament to the times in which we live … that such an act shocked thousands of commuters on a busy thoroughfare in 2006, but in 2018 events include at least this level of hate in the daily news palette. Even the author’s wife had forgotten how closely the fiction of Well Considered mirrored the facts reported in the Washington Post.
There were sets of printouts representing Maryland and California (states in the book), as well as other states and D.C., listing Jim Crow laws and their dates. From Maryland, (1870) “Taxes paid by colored people shall be set aside for maintaining schools for colored children;” (1872) “Schools to be established for colored children. No colored school shall be established in a district unless the colored population warrants;” (1884) Prohibited all marriages between white persons and Negroes and persons of Negro descent to third generation inclusive … subject to imprisonment between 18 months to ten years;” (1904) “All railroad companies required to provide separate cars or coaches for white and colored passengers;” (1904) “Steamboats … separate areas …;” (1908) “Steamboats … separate toilets … and sleeping cabins;” (1908) “Streetcars … separate seats;” (1924) “Miscegenation declared a felony;” (1924) “Required racially segregated schools,” etc., including (1955) “any white woman who delivered a child conceived with a Negro or mulatto would be sentenced to the penitentiary for 18 months to five years.”
There was an article about an African American community that served as a significant setting in the novel. This “retreat” never applied for incorporation and is not one of the Historic Black Townships (North Brentwood, Fairmount Heights, Glenarden, and Eagle Harbor) portrayed in “A Space of Their Own” brochure and exhibition of the Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center at North Brentwood, Inc.
After a positive comment about the amount of detail provided regarding daily life in the historical parts of the novel, the author’s wife revealed that the original intent was for a book with a sequel. The history intended for the sequel was incorporated to make a book that seems to come to an end but then takes off again with a plot twist binding the two books together.
There was a discussion about lynchings and some of the underlying reasons for them, such as land grabs. The book club guest suggested that members read Sycamore Row by John Grisham (2013) for a novel with a story similar to Well Considered but told from a different point of view and in Mississippi instead of Maryland.
A question regarding the ending of Well Considered led to a comparison/contrast with Morris’s final novel, Masjid Morning. Throughout the discussion, some of the more questionable characters or events turned out to be the ones which were actually based in reality. Again, truth is stranger than fiction.