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Review: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

March 26, 2012

Devil in the Grove coverTitle: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
Author: King, Gilbert
Length: 359 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Harper / 2012
Source: From the publisher for review.
Rating: 4/5
Why I Read It: History and law in the civil rights era – sounded like just my thing!
Date Read: 10/03/12

Even for a reader who was more aware of the realities of life in the Jim Crow era, and as a reader who has been reading non-fiction accounts of that time, this book still shocked and appalled me again and again. This book focuses mainly on Thurgood Marshall who worked with the NAACP arguing various cases around the country, the most well known of course being Brown vs Board which basically tore down any justification states had for segregated schools. The focus of this book isn’t that case (though it and various others are mentioned throughout), but the focus is rather the case of the Groveland Boys in Florida.

The Groveland Boys were four young African American men accused of raping a white woman. Two of the men weren’t even in the area at the time of the accused crime, and the other two were also innocent, but framed for various other reasons. Through the highlighting of this case, King gives an overview of Marshall’s life and discusses why criminal, and especially rape, cases like this one were so important to him. They proved a way to change opinions and prove the injustice in the law, especially as it was used to keep down the population.

Through the book it is easy to see the gross injustices faced by African Americans throughout the south, and the dangers they lived through every day. It showed how brutal life could really be, but how they lived through and despite that, but the effects that it had on opinions and options.

One complaint that I had with the book is that I found it jumped around quite a bit, especially in the beginning chapters, between laying out the crime and start of the case and between Marshall’s life and earlier cases. Having so little knowledge of Marshall to start with I found it confusing the way it was laid out here and thought it could have been smoother if King had stuck to a purely time-line based structure for the narrative.

My last, and largest, issue was with the case itself. Here we have four young men charged with rape, and because we know all the facts and because King can lay out more than was aware at the trial, we know that the men are innocent. However, in arguing the case and working to prove the innocence of the men on trial, what is often brought up (by King and by the actual participants) is facts such as the lack of physical evidence, the fact that the doctor couldn’t conclusively say it was rape, the fact that her story changed from when she first spoke with someone after the alleged incident and when it was reported. While all of these matter… we are talking about rape and all of these facts play into misconceptions that simply fuel our rape culture and make it next to impossible for women to actually receive justice in rape cases now. Clearly current and past can’t be compared, and in that case she was lying, it is difficult to read books that include such myths nonetheless. I would argue that in this case the full evidence proved their innocence more than any myths do – stories changing and doctors deciding clearly aren’t necessary.

In all, a very important and necessary book. While I wish it (and society) were able to more clearly understand the way rape happens, it is still a book that should be required reading for all. We all need to know more about this period in history, and brushing it over as if it didn’t happen – or pretending that it was not nearly as bad as it was – does not help anyone.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2012 8:57 am

    I thought this book sounded good but wondered about the writing – you’ve made it sound like it’s pretty accessible.

    • April 8, 2012 6:43 pm

      Yes, the writing is definitely great Kathy. It’s well written and easy to follow, even if you have little prior knowledge about the characters or incidents involved.

  2. March 26, 2012 10:16 am

    Yes but actual evidence wasn’t so important in the Jim Crow south, which was precisely Marshall’s problem. But you’re certainly right that even now, it is difficult for victims of rape to get justice. Even victims of sexual harassment without rape. I don’t know if I told you about our book club meeting about Swamplandia, when one of the men claimed that the little girl who was raped “must have wanted it” because she didn’t fight (off the older, stronger guy). Just amazing that this idea is still prevalent.

    • April 8, 2012 6:45 pm

      Very true Jill. It’s a difficult situation in which the way rapes used to be handled by the law and the way they are now are both terrible :P That is terrible about your book club member too. It’s horrifying the way that people think isn’t it? I know many who brush things like that off, saying that sure the media may be skewed but no one takes it seriously. Sadly way too many people do think that way though.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    March 26, 2012 11:33 am

    Ugh, Jill’s comment makes me so angry! I can’t believe someone would say that at a mixed-gender book club. Disgusting. I think it’s interesting that you bring up the rape situation in this book when I assume (perhaps incorrectly?) that it’s much more about the injustice related to race. I’m glad you shed light on the other topic.

    • April 8, 2012 6:46 pm

      Yes, it is angering and frustrating and also saddening at the same time isn’t it Aarti? Unfortunately I’ve come across that kind of statement way too often. And yes, it’s about race for sure, but the focus is on race specifically in relation to a rape case.

  4. March 26, 2012 12:34 pm

    I have read a couple of other reviews of this book, and feel that it’s such an important read, and one that would likely make me really angry and frustrated with the whole situation and its implications. Marshall was truly a one of a kind man, and it’s so wonderful that he chose to stand up for those who were wrongfully accused. Such an intriguing read, and one that really begs to be read. Amazing review today, Amy! You discussed a lot of various issues with depth and sensitivity, and I enjoyed reading it.

    • April 8, 2012 6:47 pm

      He was a fantastic man definitely zibilee, I’m glad that I learned more about him. Thanks.

  5. March 27, 2012 6:30 am

    Your review honestly tells how important this book is. I would be interested to see how issues play out for these young african-americans.

    • April 8, 2012 6:48 pm

      You’d enjoy the book I think Geosi. A great look at historical injustices.

  6. March 27, 2012 7:31 pm

    Like Kathy, I was concerned this would be a book that bogged me down, but it sounds more readable than I expected. Jill’s comment really made me want to scream. How anyone can think any female “wants” to be raped (a violent crime, not a sex act) is beyond me.

    • April 8, 2012 6:50 pm

      Yes, the book was quite accessible Nancy :) And ugh, yes, too many people still have those ideas, it is so depressing sometimes!

  7. March 28, 2012 8:53 am

    Sounds like a great book and the cover is wonderful.

    I think you’d like Elizabeth and Hazel ( by David Margolick, also a book about civil rights.

  8. March 31, 2012 9:13 pm

    I’ve been having sort of a hard time with the way the early parts of the book jump around too. But it is okay. I love Thurgood Marshall and I will happily read anything about him because he is the best ever.

    • April 8, 2012 6:52 pm

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who had issues with that Jenny. I wondered if I just wasn’t following it well because I read it off and on for a few days on the subway and etc, but noticed it even when sitting down to read a larger chunk at a time. But yes, as you say, still very worth reading and I’m so glad to have learned more about Marshall!


  1. March 2012 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

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