Mississippi, 1927. A flood threatens to break through the levees and the home of Robert Chatham and his parents is washed away. Father Elis already lost much of his pride because of the humiliations he has to endure as a black man in the south and mother Etta lost herself completely when their eldest son was brought home after he was lynched because he had been looking at a white girl.
The second part is set in 1932. Here we find Eli, a black musician who is taken out of prison by a white man who wants Eli to perform for him. Eli is a charismatic man and many believe he has special powers. He meets Robert, who is now twelve and works as an odd job boy in a hotel (brothel really). He tells the boy he is cursed and the black dog of the devil follows him.
In the later parts of the story we find Robert in 1941, when he works for theTennessee Valley Authority, one of the major projects of the New Deal. He still feels like he is cursed and he does nothing to stop fate from happening. And fate has little good for him in store.
The title, Southern cross the dog, references the name of two railways, the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta (YD, also known as the Yellow Dog). These railways cross in Mississippi, just like the same people always seem to cross Robert’s path. The dog is also the dog that follows Robert (or the dog Robert thinks is following him).
Bill Cheng, the writer, lives in New York and never visited Mississippi before he finished the book. He was inspired by old Blues songs, and the railways are also featured in these songs.
The story is told in different parts and different people are the main characters in each part. Only later it becomes clear which part these people played or will play in Robert’s life. I thought this was well done and fascinating, all the different lines coming together like that. Realizing how one remark can help shape a life is quite breathtaking, and not in a good way.
The only problem I had with Southern cross the dog was the amount of horrible things that happened to Robert. He had to endure poverty, hunger, humiliation and pain for years, and everybody dies, leaving Robert alone and miserable. It became a bit too much and perhaps this could have been dosed a little better. In the end he finally has a place to stay, but somehow I do not think this will last very long.
Despite that little thing I thought Southern cross the dog was a beautiful and engaging story.
Published in 2014Pages 322