Title: The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson
Genre: Historical (’50s, ’60s & ’70s), Literary Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: A+ & A Recommended Read
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
From Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson comes a powerful, lyrical debut novel that explores race relations, first love, and coming-of-age in North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s.
At eight years old, Raeford “Junebug” Hurley has known more than his share of hard lessons. After the sudden death of his parents, he goes to live with his grandparents on a farm surrounded by tobacco fields and lonesome woods. There he meets Fancy Stroud and her twin brother, Lightning, the children of black sharecroppers on a neighboring farm. As years pass, the friendship between Junebug and bright, compassionate Fancy takes on a deeper intensity. Junebug, aware of all the ways in which he and Fancy are more alike than different, habitually bucks against the casual bigotry that surrounds them–dangerous in a community ruled by the Klan.
On the brink of adulthood, Junebug is drawn into a moneymaking scheme that goes awry–and leaves him with a dark secret he must keep from those he loves. And as Fancy, tired of saying yes’um and living scared, tries to find her place in the world, Junebug embarks on a journey that will take him through loss and war toward a hard-won understanding.
At once tender and unflinching, The Last Road Home delves deep into the gritty, violent realities of the South’s turbulent past, yet evokes the universal hunger for belonging.
The Last Road Home is a heartbreakingly poignant coming of age novel that takes place in rural North Carolina in the years leading up the Civil Rights Movement. This powerful debut by Danny Johnson is a realistic portrayal of race relations and farm life that is incredibly relevant in today’s volatile climate where racism, bigotry and hatred are sadly once again on the rise.
After eight year old Raeford “Junebug” Hurley’s parents are killed in a car accident, he goes to live full-time with his grandparents on their tobacco farm. Junebug is deeply influenced by his surprisingly forward thinking grandparents who do not share their fellow Southerners prejudices and he forms a close friendship with Lightning and Fancy, the children of sharecroppers from a nearby farm. Unlike his grandparents whose faith is unshakeable, he does not view his religious teachings as absolute truth and as he endures loss after loss, he is pretty much done with religion. Although his relationship with Lightning becomes tense off and on throughout the years, Junebug and Fancy always remain close therefore it is no surprise to those closest to them when their friendship deepens into forbidden love. With the ugly specter of the Ku Klux Klan looming over them and the harsh reality of the hatred that surrounds them, is Junebug and Fancy’s relationship doomed to fail?
Despite the losses he has endured and the sometimes cruel nature of farm living, Junebug is a sensitive, kindhearted and thoughtful young man. He thinks for himself and he is lucky to have grandparents who allow him the freedom to question the injustices that occur around them. Although he is accustomed to the racial slurs and epitaphs of his neighbors, Junebug never allows other people’s prejudices to sway him and he is angered by the bigotry that is so deeply ingrained in Southern culture. Even with his grandmother’s thoughtful explanation of why people are unable to let the past go, Junebug refuses to accept racism as the status quo and he will not give up his friendship with Fancy, Lightning and their parents.
Junebug’s innocence is endearing but it is inevitable that his life and friendship will eventually be touched by the ugliness of his neighbors and the Klan. Through his friendship with Fancy, he experiences firsthand the harsh reality of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Junebug naively believes his relationship with Fancy will go unnoticed by those around him and while they do not flaunt their liaison, it is only a matter of time before someone uncovers the truth about them. Fancy is much more realistic about their future than Junebug and she makes a decision that irrevocably changes Junebug’s life.
Written in first person from Junebug’s point of view, The Last Road Home is a realistic depiction of life in the South and while some of the content is difficult to read, it is a heartwrenchingly honest representation of the time period. While it would be nice to believe these dark days are behind us, recent events indicate that racism, prejudice and hatred are alive and well and now extend well beyond Southern borders. This debut novel by Danny Johnson highlights a horrifying and shameful period in American history that should never be forgotten or repeated.
An absolutely outstanding piece of literary fiction that should be on EVERYONE’S reading list.