Stephen L. Kanne’s second novel, The Lynching Waltz, is historical fiction inspired by a real event that occurred in the author’s hometown of Glencoe, Illinois, in 1947.
It was a favorite and cherished tradition for junior high students to participate in a ballroom dancing class called Fortnighty. The incident began when the new teacher sent a letter home saying that black students were no longer allowed to participate. The town came together in a show of unity and brought an end to the class because all students were not welcomed. This ban on dancing sets the stage for the opening of The Lynching Waltz.
It’s July 1969 in Glencoe and 12-year-old Jamie has been deposited at his grandparents’ home while his mother is away and his father is off somewhere called Vietnam.
He is bored and turns on the television to watch “American Bandstand.” His grandmother orders him to turn it off and Jamie objects. It is his grandfather, retired federal judge James Lincoln Washburn Junior, who decides Jamie needs a dose of history to help him understand why there is no dancing in Glencoe.
Thus begins a journey across time and to parts of the United States and Canada where Jamie learns about his family and the struggles endured by African Americans from the beginning of slavery to his current days.
One incident relates the heinous lynching of father and son musicians in 1914 Mississippi at the hands of the infamous KKK. A historical listing of lynchings in this state alone is in the hundreds, with the latest recoded as recently as the late 1950s, even though slavery ended more than 150 years ago.
This fictional event in the story prompts the dancing ban in Glencoe.
Author Kanne weaves in actual historical events into the fictional stories of Jamie’s forebearers and puts a human face on the effects of racism.
He begins the Washburn family legacy with the accurate retelling of the 1841 mutiny on the two-masted vessel, Creole, known as a brig.
The ship departed Hampton, Virgina, on its way to New Orleans, but after the ship was taken over by the slaves, it arrived in Nassau, Bahamas, on Nov. 9, where 128 slaves were granted freedom. Many historical sources refer to the mutiny aboard the Creole as “the most successful slave revolt in U.S. history.” It is during this event Jamie’s ancestor, Isaiah Washburn, is introduced.
Another story shares the birth in 1941 of the “Red Tails,” who are better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This unit, called the 99th Pursuit Squadron, was famous for allowing the first black pilots in the U.S. armed services. Woven into this section of the book is the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt championed the formation of this historical group.
While Jamie’s grandfather takes him on this journey through history, Kanne takes readers along for the ride. It is a compelling read, and the language is rough and real. Kanne doesn’t mince words: His description of the slaves’ living conditions, especially on the slave ships, is appalling.
Kanne is unrelenting in his portrayal of the evils of racism, and he is admittedly on a quest to eradicate it.
He hopes that The Lynching Waltz can do for racism today what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did to help promote the anti-slavery movement in 1852.
Another of Kanne’s goals is to encourage nationwide recognition and celebration of Juneteenth, which honors the date June 19, 1865, when the last slave was freed in the United States. Currently, Juneteenth is celebrated in 45 states.
These are ambitious goals, and it is depressing to think that in the 60-plus years since the Civil Rights Act was enacted, the United States still experiences the blight of racism.
In The Lynching Waltz, Kanne effectively uses real events woven with one family’s story to convey a message of acceptance and hope.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.