By: Tom Blackburn
Published by: Tom Blackburn Books (July 2016)
No. of pages: 292
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
The joy of writing a blog that emphasizes small press writers is in discovering original voices — ones that are vigorous, untamed, weird — and stories that are quirky, more concerned with having a good time than in reaching any particular audience. Blackburn has just such a voice, and Time and Chance is quirky and fun. It’s possible, though, that it could have quite a large audience if only people knew it existed. Historical fiction is an increasingly popular genre, and this is a novel that very successfully takes us back to another time.
Set in Charlotte, North Carolina in the year 1947, Time and Chance skillfully evokes the South of nearly 70 years ago. There are the anxious reckonings of pennies and nickles at a time when bread costs a dime and a few dollars at a second-hand store can buy a new wardrobe. Women engage in bitter — and hilarious — struggles to maintain supremacy in the world of coming out parties and the local society columns. A quarter century before Roe v. Wade, an abortion means a long bus ride not to a clinic but to the home of a root conjurer. Throughout, the artful use of dialect and custom evokes both a slower pace of living and the myriad differences in social rankings. Consider this exchange between a poor young white woman and the older “Negro lady” who cleans the rooming house.
“Well, my goodness, Junie. You don’t have to do my room.”
Junie smiled and nodded. “That a fact? What you think Miz Merrill say to me, she come home and find your room not done, still a tangle?” . . . Junie laughed, more or less the way Jesus might have laughed at some of Saint Peter’s sillier ideas. “What time you fixing to leave?”
The young white woman who is silly enough to think she can clean her own room is Faye Bynum. She’s a bright journalism intern on an urgent quest to change her life’s trajectory. Working for free while her male counterpart is paid, Faye is stuck doing the women’s news under the tyrannical instruction of an aging and apparently vindictive reporter who seems to be more interested in selling picture frames than in writing anything important. Faye, on the other hand, desperately wants to do something big. She could feel the ground sliding under her, a muddy, crumbling avalanche that would skid her into a Fayetteville trailer park and the checkout counter of the Piggly Wiggly before she was thirty and long before she had made a name for herself as a writer which would never happen.
Unfortunately, there is plenty to write about, but for all her pluck and good intentions, Faye is no match for the real evil that stalks this small Southern town. Officially, the KKK doesn’t even exist, but they walk the midnight streets, hooded, unopposed, and carrying baseball bats. A man is murdered, and the police report that he died in a traffic accident. Somebody at the newspaper seems to be only too aware of everything that happens, but the staff is intent on creating elaborate fictions even for one another.
With all the passion of youth, Faye rails against the unfairness that surrounds her while still trying to navigate the book’s fast paced surprises, twists of fate, and carefully concealed identities. A small town can be the staging ground for endless class warfare, and nobody is going to abandon his own turf to make things easy for the newcomer in their midst. Much must be attempted and suffered before some enemies reveal themselves to be hidden, watchful friends. It takes even longer and a good deal of heartbreak to discover that privileged fools may be far smarter than they seem. Even so, Faye perseveres, undergoing an emotional and spiritual awakening in the process, and taking to heart the Biblical counsel, Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.
Time and Chance is a startling, funny, and deeply felt coming of age novel in which an ambitious young woman encounters one hard and confounding reality after another. The result is a newfound maturity. This is Faye riding the bus back to Charlotte early one morning after a trip to see the conjurer: And while the cotton wheeled past her, still waiting for hands, the tears that sometimes spilled were neither tears of joy nor of despair — the two sources Faye Bynum had known in the childhood now past — but came of some third thing in which sorrow and gratitude and humility alloyed into a vision of herself moving across the face of the Southland under the sun. Seeing it now from the view of the sun: a woman among millions of women who were weaving the wilderness under the sun, holding their past with one hand and their future with the other, sometimes nearly torn apart by the burden and the hope.