By Mark Busby
Before we are ten pages into Cedar Crossing, the outlines of its central event have been revealed — the lynching of three Henderson County men in an area now covered by Cedar Creek Reservoir. Though this is a novel, it is thoroughly grounded in historical accounts of the actual events that garnered Henderson County unflattering publicity for a few months in1899. Filling in the bare outlines of the story is the aim and the method of the novel, but, as one of the tellers of the tale says, “Stories got their own way of rollin’ themselves out, and I’ll jest let this one come out like a armadillo leavin’ home.”
Though we tend to think of lynchings as white on black crimes, the Trans-Cedar Lynchings, as they were called, involved a group of white men taking three white men — a man and two grown sons--out of their homes in the night and hanging them from a low branch. One of the grisly and memorable aspects of the hangings is that the tree branch was too low and the men’s legs had to be tied behind them so they couldn’t reach the ground.
The reasons for the murders were unclear from the beginning — perhaps it had to do with some stolen hogs or jealousy or a moonshine business. Mark Busby uses the device of a young narrator, Jeff Adams, who follows a college assignment into the mystery of the lynchings by interviewing his grandfather and great aunt and others to find out just what happened and why, especially why. In the process, the young man learns about himself and the world in which he lives — 1960s East Texas.
For me, Cedar Crossing comes alive in the accounts of the story told by Jeff’s Pampaw and Aunt Mag and the other “witnesses.” Busby captures their voices, their language, and their idiosyncrasies. Pampaw smokes cigars and listens to country music out of a cranked radio out in the garage while Mammaw naps. Aunt Mag serves sweet tea and keeps a snuff-soaked matchstick in her cheek.
However, when the author explores the coming to awareness of the young narrator, the prose becomes pedestrian and the insights obvious. Luckily, most of the novel is in the hands and voices of the oldtimers who tell the stories from their own points of view.
By the end, the narrator has pieced together a plausible explanation of the murders and a satisfying conclusion to the mystery. The author doesn’t claim to have uncovered the actual reason for the historical lynchings, but says he hoped to achieve what he calls “fictional truth,” a story true to the times and the people, whether or not it happened just that way.