Camino ghosts by John Grisham

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American history is not always neat, and this book weaves the tale of the ‘ghosts’ – the long-dead ancestors whose journey as chattels of the slave trade gets remembered and honoured in a modern-day literary exploration and a legal fight. After a horrendous journey, and a shipwreck the survivors wash up on a small island off the Florida coast – Dark Isle. The island is cursed by the formerly African inhabitants and their survival is a miracle, and they are joined by escapees from slavery. In the present day, Lovely Jackson, an elderly woman who was born on the island many generations after the slaves arrived, is keen to have the story of her forbears raised to public attention and writes a self-published account of Dark Isle’s history which comes to the attention of a bookshop owner, a noted author - Mercer Mann, and a pro-bono environmental lawyer. The timing of the interest in this elderly woman’s account coincides with a land grab by a wealthy developer wanting the island for big scale development and Casino construction. Will the history of the island be lost, or can one woman’s retrospective memoir and her legal fight protect the ghosts from the ambush of progress?

Grisham has created a captivating story that almost has a non-fiction quality – an unfolding of history, woven with the fiction threads of intriguing characters, a disquieting setting, and the mystical possibility of curses and danger. The fight for the rights of a woman to protect her ancestral burial grounds feels a little like an indigenous land fight, but in a southern USA and slavery context. The twists and turns of a legal contest are part of Grisham’s literary armoury, and this book reveals how complex the law can be. In addition, the author Mercer’s role in bringing the story to national attention uncovers the complexities of publishing a marketable story. The star of the book though is the character Lovely Jackson, a formidable and forthright advocate for her history, and a reminder that rights are not always easy to argue and sometimes wily activists are needed to enable protection.

Themes: Afro-American history, Slave trade, Legal rights, Authors and authorship.

Carolyn Hull