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THE COMMITTEE
by Sterling Watson
Akashic Books, January 2020
420 pages
$32.95
ISBN: 1617757837


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is a hot August afternoon in 1958 when Tom Stall, professor of English and assistant chairman of the English Department at the University of Florida, leaves his office to investigate a peculiar sound. When he reaches the street, he discovers the body of a colleague, Jack Leaf, who, in an act reminiscent of the suicide of Harvard professor FO Matthiessen, had stepped out of a window and fallen to his death.

In 1958, the University of Florida was not precisely a leading institution and its faculty, especially the English department, was quietly resigned to that fact. Professor Stall, like his colleagues, had accepted that it was unwise to make all but the smallest of ripples. Since he is in the running to move up to full chairmanship of his department, he is disposed to avoid controversy. He is, in fact, well-named. He is also unwittingly poised on the brink of political change that will ultimately alter the course of his life.

Summoned to meet with the president of the university, Stall becomes party to some disturbing information. He had already formed a theory about what caused Jack Leaf to kill himself: from his wife, he learned that Jack's full name was Jack Red Leaf and that he was, apparently an Indigenous American passing as white. And pass he had to - as a Native American, he would have been unemployable by the university, which was legally bound to hire only white faculty. As Tom reflects, ocean-front Florida was one thing, but the rest of the state was firmly tied to the Deep South in its culture and beliefs.

But Jack was hiding even worse truths about himself. He was a closeted gay man and being blackmailed; he'd been visited by two agents who were presumably acting for the (real life) Legislative Investigation Committee which was under the direct supervision of Florida Governor Charley Johns. This group has, the university president tells Stall, "police powers, subpoena powers, a team of lawyers and investigators, and they're all hell-bent to root out Communists, homosexuals and other undesirables in our schools." Although both Stall and the university president are fictional, the Committee sadly is not and although it evidently had difficulty exposing Communists, at least a hundred "undesirables" were found, exposed, and fired. Jack was about to be exposed and he would rather die than go through that ordeal.

THE COMMITTEE is focussed on the moral struggle that Tom Stall undergoes as he attempts to uncover what exactly happened to Leaf and who exactly was blackmailing him as well as any other potential victims that might come his way. But it also provides a cautionary look at what was going wrong in America in 1958, at problems that only then were being recognized if not dealt with. Racism, of course, but Watson is well aware of the narrow choices afforded women at the time, especially if married. There is a new hire in the department - Dr Sophie Green, with a PhD from Columbia and a confident manner that indicates that she did not grow up in the South. It is a manner that strikes Tom as both grating and attractive, but something that will prevent her from achieving a satisfactory academic career, at least at a Southern university. Maureen, Tom's wife, was raised in Oberlin, Ohio, the daughter of an academic family. But for some obscure reason, she attended school in Virginia, where she met Tom, and in the twelve years since, has found herself forced, at least externally, into the mould of a proper wife and mother. She is angry about it and angrier still as she fears she is pregnant on the eve of her starting a job outside the home. Her anger puzzles Tom (who doesn't know about the pregnancy) but Maureen, we know, will eventually and bitterly accept her role.

So THE COMMITTEE is at once an historical, political, and academic novel, and it is one that succeeds on all these fronts. It strikes me as a book that appears even more relevant to the times in which we live at present, even perhaps more relevant than Watson thought when he first began work on it. Those who yearn for a return to the solid, established 50s may not know just what it is they are wishing for. THE COMMITTEE should serve as a wholesome reminder.

Yvonne Klein is a retired college English teacher. She has been editing Reviewing the Evidence since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2020

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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