Some novels—especially humorous ones—lose their relevancy over time; others seem to grow more pertinent with each passing year. Kristin Lattany's The Lakestown Rebellion, originally published in 1978 and re-released this year as part of Coffee House Press's Black Arts Movement series, may never have been more timely than it is today.
Lakestown, New Jersey, is the only all-Black city in the United States. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad; its buildings are historical treasures. And half of it is about to be paved over for the new interstate. Betrayed by White government officials and their own mayor, a man who keeps forgetting he's not White, Lakestown's citizens resolve to fight. But how does one poor town fight the entire Highway Commission and the seemingly inexorable march of 'progress'? The same way they always have: with the spirit of the Trickster.
Lattany's comic touch is firmest with two subjects in particular: central character Ronald P. "Fess" Roaney attempting to deliver lectures on the historical significance of Brer Rabbit and the myths of Anansi to a thoroughly uncaring audience; and Lakestown's residents spectacularly playing dumb to befuddle the construction workers at the highway site. Playing to the workers' pride and their racial stereotypes, the citizens not only impede construction for nearly a week, they undo almost every gain made in that time.
Long before dawn, they had replaced all the dirt that had been dug up the week before....[Fess] did not fully appreciate the extent of Ikie's strategy until the next morning, when he arrived just in time to observe Lonnie Jenkins's reaction when the foreman asked what had happened to their hole....Fess wished he had a camera to record his expression, a masterpiece of dissimulation, as was his response: "Hole, suh? Is dey a hole missing? Muss be around here someplace. Le's us take a look."
Each time the government wises up to the citizenry's antics, the citizenry gets wiser, until the novel reaches a climax which shouldn't even be plausible, but which by this point seems, in fact, perfectly logical.
Living as we do in an era when the government is all but handing the country to developers on a platter, one can't help but lament the absence of the kind of community effort the people of Lakestown devise. In this age when rampant construction lays waste to the environment, levels historical buildings, and rips chasms through communities, The Lakestown Rebellion could serve as a perfectly-timed and much-needed reminder that sometimes, the best way through a problem is to go around it.
Lattany's only misstep is her depiction of the Young Warriors, a group of Lakestown teens trying to take the fight against the highway into their own hands. Snide towards them as she is towards nothing else in the novel, Lattany mocks their Black Power attitudes and their attempts at consensus-based decision-making. Also, the forward by Sandra Adell is better skipped. It reveals too much of the novel's plot to be a welcome read beforehand and offers too little insight to be useful after.
Aside from these small detractions, Coffee House Press couldn't have picked a better time to re-release The Lakestown Rebellion. For anyone willing to laugh at themselves, and for anyone who believes the 'little guy' can still win, this is a highly recommended read.
- Eli Weintraub