Review: ‘Devil in the Grove’ by Gilbert King

by Kim on April 9, 2012 · 13 comments

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Title: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
Author: Gilbert King
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: In 1951, just before he should have been preparing to argue arguably the most important civil rights case of the decade, Brown v. Board of Education, NAACP laywer Thurgood Marshall found himself in a perilous situation — riding a train into the deep South to defend one of four young African American citrus pickers that had been accused of raping a white girl in Groveland, Florida.

Already, two of the defendants were dead and one remained in the custody of the Groveland sheriff likely responsible for the death of his friends. Other lawyers and activists who had been part of the case had been threatened or killed. Yet Marshall, known across the county as “Mr. Civil Rights” couldn’t abandon the “Groveland Four” in their time of need. So he continued on road, not certain what awaited him when he would get off the train in a deeply divided Florida where average citizens struggled thanks to Jim Crow and the lawless nature of the people ostensibly in charge.

The Devil in the Grove is both a story of the Groveland Four and a portrait of a young Thurgood Marshall, a fearless and flawed laywer working to systematically dismantle the laws that oppressed African Americans in the South. Despite the description of the book as a “Southern Gothic tale,” I wasn’t expecting The Devil in the Grove to be as emotionally engaging (and frankly, outrageous) as it turned out to be. Author Giblert King has written a fantastic story filled with the sorts of flawed heroes and entirely despicable villains readers expect in the best thrillers, yet keeps the book firmly grounded in the reality of the Jim Crow South.

King’s portrait of Marshall isn’t overwhelmingly flattering, which I think is a good thing — Marshall could be arrogant and worked excessively (to the detriment of his family, including at least one instance of cheating on his ill wife). He had a drinking problem and was known for excessively crude humor. But it’s through Marshall’s flaws that I think you get to see the way he grew and evolved into the well-respected Supreme Court justice he would eventually become. It’s also because of his dedication to his work that the volume of case law needed to dismantle the most egregious civil rights ruling — separate but equal — was heard before the Supreme Court. It’s impossible not to admire Marshall, despite his flaws.

I also loved the way King was able to show the way race relations in the South were as much a result of embedded racism as they were about the economic realities of the time. He makes a pretty compelling argument that one of the reasons Groveland’s criminal sheriff, Willis McCall, was able to have such absolute power over the people of Groveland was that he had the support of the major businesses (citrus growers, mostly). And it’s not that those owners were deeply racist, just that they needed the African American workers to continue to work at their businesses. Racism was as much economics as it was personality, something that I hadn’t thought about before.

I highly recommend getting a copy of The Devil in the Grove if the subject seems at all interesting to you. King’s book filled me with so much outrage at the system, admiration for those who fought against it, and appreciation for the people who learned to think differently after seeing the case of the Groveland Four. That’s exactly what great nonfiction can, and should, do for readers.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Trisha April 9, 2012 at 7:48 am

This sounds awesome. Immediate wish list add!

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Blake April 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

I read this book on your recommendation a few weeks ago and might have skipped it if you hadn’t called attention to it. You are 100% correct about the emotionally engaging quality of this story. To me, this book was like giving birth. The author does not shy away from the violence and pain, and there were times when I wanted to scream, “NO! This can’t happen! Do not let this happen!” But yet, there’s something beautiful happening in these pages as we see the effect that the young Thurgood Marshall has on so many people, and things begin to change for the better.

I was fascinated by some of the female characters in this book, like the young detective Marshall sent to infiltrate the Klan, and the reporter who stands up to the Sheriff. I can’t even imagine how they did it! Like you say, it filled me with an appreciation for people who think differently, and who showed such courage and commitment and put their lives at risk. Thanks for finding these kinds of books. This blog is excellent, and I can’t wait to read Methland now.

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Kim April 9, 2012 at 8:18 pm

I was intrigued by the reporter too. At first, she really made me so angry — how could you not stand up to that! But then I loved the way she was able to come around and see what was going on. That’s the kind of courage that needed to happen at that time.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) April 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Wow, this book sounds like a masterpiece. I generally drive everyone I know crazy when I read a book like this because I talk about it constantly.

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Kim April 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Yes, I am still talking about this one all the time. It was so good!

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Jeanne April 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm

As you know, I don’t often read nonfiction, but these issues have been on my mind lately (as I wrote in today’s post, when I reread one of my favorite books, The Last Gentleman, I fixated on the way the racism of the 1960′s was presented), so this one is going on my list of books to look for at the library.

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Kim April 9, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I hope you’re able to find it and give it a shot. It feels like I’ve been reading quite a few books where race/race relations have come up as a topic lately. This one was, by far, the one that made me most outraged as I read.

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Jenny April 9, 2012 at 6:47 pm

I’m reading this now and enjoying it a lot. I cried a little on the subway when I was reading the story about Charles Houston — when he was dying, and wrote the note to his son saying that in any fight some fall. Heartbreaking. The book is really reminding me of how important Thurgood Marshall was to the development of America’s legal system of dealing with race issues. (I <3 him.)

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Kim April 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm

I knew a little bit about Marshall, but this gave me so much insight into him. I really want to learn more. And I’m so happy you found a copy of this one — I think you will really, really like it.

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Janet Thomson April 10, 2012 at 10:16 am

Kim,

I enjoyed your review because it expresses many emotions I experience after reading issues involving race relations — outrage, admiration and appreciation. I’m a little rusty on my history of Thurgood Marshal, but I would argue that he wasn’t arrogant, but rather assertive and confident. In the south men like Thurgood were often labeled “uppity” because they were education, confident and challenged the status quo. I will definitely put this on my “must read” for the year, and hopefully it will inspire me to write a review.

Janet

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Kim April 29, 2012 at 9:23 am

You know, I think there’s a fine line between arrogant and assertive. It’s hard from just one book (this is my only in-depth read on Marshall) to know where he fell (or, perhaps, when he fell on one side or the other, depending on context). But that is a good point.

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Christy (A Good Stopping Point) April 11, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Definitely sounds like a book that would thoroughly engage me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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Kim April 29, 2012 at 9:24 am

I hope you get a chance to read it!

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