Longtime Atlanta news anchor John Pruitt's debut novel "Tell It True" examines Atlanta's rise as a major American city in the early 1960s, prevailing against Georgia's ingrained racial violence.
Published by Mercer University Press, the book hinges upon the brutal Klan slaying of a black Army reserve officer and Baltimore businessman. Driving through rural Georgia on his way home from his annual tour of duty at Fort Benning, Jarvis Pendry is killed late at night by a father and son consumed by racial hatred.
The fictional murder is loosely based upon the 1964 killing of Washington educator and Army officer Lemuel Penn, slain by a shotgun blast from a passing car while driving through Madison County, Ga, just outside of Athens. Pruitt as a young TV newsmen covered the Penn murder case and trial, in which three Klansmen were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Pruitt's crime takes place in the fictional Pickett Country, named for the Confederate general who led the failed Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, known as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. That historical echo of the South's "lost cause" effectively sets the stage for Pruitt's exploration of white resistance to the civil rights movement, black demands for equal rights and Atlanta's emergence as the leading Sun Belt city.
Drawing upon his career as a TV journalist, Pruitt views the novel's key events following the murder through the eyes of his alter-ego, the young TV cameraman Gil Matthews. Gil is joined in his dangerous pursuit of the truth by Mindy Williams, an AP reporter eventually hired by Mathews' WDX TV station, modeled after Atlanta's WSB.
Gil and Mindy's partnership and perhaps budding romance provide an entertaining rom-com counterpoint to the book's dramatic moments. The young journalists encounter a rich cast of fully imagined characters.
An Atlanta executive resembling business leader Robert Woodruff works behind the scenes to influence a fictional 1964 gubernatorial election, seeking to engineer the victory of a moderate candidate over an avowed segregationist. In another insider reference, the wealthy Buckhead power broker bears the name Devereaux Inman, echoing the real-life names of two old Atlanta families.
The fictional gallery based on historical models includes a black minister and civil rights leader, a satirically flamboyant defense attorney, young black radicals at Morehouse College who reject the slow pace of change accepted by the older generation, a respected TV anchorman and Georgia politicians, prosecutors, journalists and law officers.
As in the Penn trial, the Klansmen accused of killing Pendry are acquitted by an all-white male jury. Showing an impressive talent for dramatic set-pieces, Pruitt brings alive the rural courthouse and the trial's testimony, judge's directions and closing arguments. In a historical parallel to the Penn case, the first in which those accused of racial murders could face federal charges of violating the victim's civil rights, the book foreshadows a federal probe of the Pickett County murder.
Pruitt ends the book with a poignant racial reconciliation between the white Pickett County sheriff and Pendry's widow, a memorable minor character. Sheriff Lucas McSwain overcomes his white supremacist heritage in an uplifting subplot.
"Tell It True" closes with the moderate candidate's election and a foreshadowing of Atlanta's vibrant future as "the City Too Busy to Hate." Tragically, the rest of Georgia and the South found plenty of time for racial hatred. Pruitt's message of racial healing appears fragile after the Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd killings, and retreats on black voting rights.
Like the best historical novels, "Tell It True" reveals hard truths of the present and future through the lens of the past.