In “Grant Park,” Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. intertwines stories of two men, one black, one white, to show how far America has progressed in matters of race, and how far it still has to go. Pitts appears Nov. 11 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Agate Bolden, 400 pp., $24.95
In “Grant Park,” when celebrated newspaper columnist Malcolm Toussaint tries to explain why he would single-handedly wreck his career, he states, “I just got tired.”
By tired he doesn’t mean fatigued. He means fed up, hit his breaking point, no longer able to take what’s happening.
In Leonard Pitts Jr.’s latest novel, that type of tired leads various characters to take drastic actions that set up a fast-paced, suspenseful story. The book is a page-turner, but also one that commands deep reflection on history, racism and personal choices.
Leonard Pitts Jr.
The author of “Grant Park” will appear at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Pitts is regarded one of the nation’s leading voices on race and social issues, largely through his Pulitzer-prize winning, syndicated columns for The Miami Herald. He’s also an accomplished author whose previous works include the novels “Freeman” and “Before I Forget” and the memoir “Becoming Dad.”
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In “Grant Park,” Pitts masterfully blends various story lines that converge in two extraordinary events in American history: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008.
Those two dates bookend Pitts’ tale, one that revolves around Toussaint, an African-American columnist, on the morning of Election Day in 2008.
Despite rising to the pinnacle of his industry and achieving a comfortable lifestyle, Toussaint finds himself disillusioned and frustrated after learning about another police shooting of an unarmed black man. Against his superiors’ wishes, he publishes a scathing column in response.
That act of defiance sets off a chain reaction that puts his life and the life of his editor, Bob Carson, in danger. The two find themselves tangled in a plot concocted by pair of white supremacist militants to bomb Obama before he can become president.
Bob and Malcolm share a common backstory of rebellious youth during the civil-rights era, each fighting for a cause. Malcolm fought for black power; Bob fought for social justice.
Pitts does an amazing job relaying these two disparate experiences, which confront the contradictions of the civil-rights era. Malcolm was inclined to channel his anger into violence, but then he learns a valuable lesson about how real progress occurs. Bob, an idealistic activist, finds that being willing to suffer for his beliefs is not enough to keep the love of his life, a black woman, at his side.
Through the lens of the main and supporting characters, Pitts presents nuanced and complex views of how people experience and understand — or misunderstand — racism in America.
The characters wrestle with separating racism from race, as many of us do. At times, Malcolm finds himself unable to keep from being angry at white people as a whole, even though he knows not all white people are racist. Bob believes in the unity of all people, but he also fails to recognize that race does factor into identity. One of the militants, Dwayne McLarty, blames black people for ruining America and his life — without admitting his own failures and mistakes.
The story poignantly illustrates how much America changed during the 40 years between King’s death and Obama’s election. But at the same time, many of the racial struggles, frustrations and misperceptions persist. Pitts reminds us that America must continually acknowledge and confront racism, unless we want the worst parts of history to repeat themselves.