The King of Colored Town
literary fiction, The Toby Press, 2007
Winner, The Willie Morris Award for Fiction, 2007
Wimberley revisits the rural north Florida featured in A Tinker’s Damn(2000) in this powerful portrayal of a segregated community at the height of the Civil Rights movement. In 1963 Cilla Handsom, a high school junior living in Laureate’s “Colored Town,” learns that her senior year will be spent at an integrated white school on the other end of town, where fear and racist fury permeate the halls. A brash charmer named Joe Billy King blows into town after robbing a church in Tallahassee and becomes Cilla’s first lover. He discovers Cilla’s gift for music and enlists the help of a teacher to secure Cilla access to music lessons and instruments. Cilla focuses on her music and her studies, but she and Joe Billy attract the attention of the Klan and are brutally assaulted. In the aftermath, Joe Billy sacrifices himself to protect Cilla. Though the tension lags after Cilla leaves Colored Town, Wimberley’s take on the prickly themes of racism and poverty is made memorable by a gripping story line, authentic voice and dead-on dialogue.
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The Washington Post – Carolyn See
…Yes, this is America, and our responsibility, our obligation, is to succeed here to the very best of our ability. But this fascinating novel illustrates the often horrid results of that process. Joe Billy is the obvious victim here but Cilla, too, sustains dreadful physical and psychological wounds. Perhaps Little Richard said it best in his song about Adam being kicked out of Paradise: “He got what he wanted but he lost what he had.” What Cilla had, to begin with, was her unquestionable humanity as well as her talent. It may be that she has sacrificed the one to nourish the other.
Ann H. Fisher – Library Journal
Wimberley’s (Dead Man’s Bay) surprisingly affecting novel explores school integration in Florida in the 1960s through the eyes of tall, musically gifted Cilla Handsom, the black teenage daughter of an autistic mother who requires a lot of care. The section of Laureate, where she lives, is dubbed “Colored Town” and lacks running water and music, but for one well and radio. Cilla’s old life of toting water and helping her mother perform at church is interrupted by the arrival of charismatic Joe Billy King by train one day and by her teacher’s request that she join the marching band at the county’s formerly all-white school in exchange for music lessons. The drama includes some Southern gothic twists, but Cilla’s life reveals an authentic glimpse of a moment in history. Recommended.
Fate deals two African-American teens different hands in Northern Florida’s mean, segregated backcountry. Wimberley (Strawman’s Hammock, 2001, etc.) paints complex characters against a backdrop of brutally violent racial oppression. In the early 1960s, the black section of Laureate, Fla., doesn’t even have running water. Seventeen-year-old Cilla Handsom spends most of her time there taking care of her “simple” mother, who can nonetheless vividly play any melody she hears on the piano. Cilla has inherited her mother’s gift, along with perfect pitch; she teaches herself to read and play music. No one notices until a cavalier, independent teenager named Joe Billy King moves to town. He and Cilla quickly become an item, and he informs the sole educated, caring teacher at their black school about her unique talents. The town is on the verge of integrating its educational system, and the band director at the white school needs a French-horn player; he agrees to take on Cilla as a student if she will learn to play the instrument. School integration proceeds despite the objections of Laureate’s white residents, largely thanks to Sheriff Collard Jackson, the one man not intimidated by wealthy bully Garner Hewitt and his two nasty sons, Cody and J.T. Cilla tentatively thrives in this new environment, and Joe Billy seizes an opportunity that will change both their lives. While stealing money from the collection tray at a church, he witnesses several men fleeing in Cody Hewitt’s truck just before the church is burned to the ground. Sheriff Jackson gets Joe Billy off the hook in exchange for his testimony, but the incident sparks a racial war that ends in acts of horrendous violence against both JoeBilly and Cilla, who has just won a college scholarship to study music. When one of the pair kills a man in self-defense, they must decide together who will take the fall and who will rise above it. Truly heartfelt storytelling.