History is happening all around us.
Though set roughly a hundred years in the past, K.A.M. Lashley’s The Color Within offers a vision of America that mirrors our own time with a tightly bundled plot wound around a terrifying core of violence. There’s Cory, a boy treated poorly by fortune and worse by post-World War I America, who is pulled into a growing morass of racial tension that frequently boils up into outright violence during deadly race riots near his home in Chicago. Martin, Cory’s father, tries his best to keep his son from getting involved, all the while knowing that the color of their skin afforded neither of them the privilege of standing outside the fight. The ugliness of the riots in surrounding neighborhoods dominates newspaper headlines, with Chicago’s white supremacist element doing everything it can to keep Black people from succeeding in the society they feel entitled to dominate. Finally, there’s Jerry, a Southerner carrying a deep hate and an eagerness to turn tension into violence. Those threads encircle a plot to tip the scales of the racial violence gripping the city with a large cache of firearms, a conflict that mirrors the central question of Lashley’s confident debut: whose country is America?
Writing in a style that feels both contemporary and suited to historical fiction, Lashley illuminates a painful era in American history in vivid, immersive detail. His Chicago is at once lively and threatening, drawn in colors whose promise of prosperity hardly obscures the reality of life there. That subversion occurs not just in the book’s setting but in its action—virtually every one of the book’s relatively short chapters directs expectations toward one end only to veer into a more painful conclusion, to great, though sometimes vicious, effect on the reader. Lashley has effectively built a kind of literary whiplash into his story; a scene may begin with thoughtful introspection and careen into deadly violence in an instant.
If this barrage of one-two punches keeps the story moving at a white-knuckle pace, its characters help keep it from flying apart at the seams. Each casts a unique light on the ongoing conflict in the city and the nation. Cory brings a kind of moral clarity that feels predicated somewhat, but not entirely on his youth—his mother is dead, and it’s not long before he’s dragged into the larger conflict from which his father tries desperately to shield him. Cory’s familiarity with violence, his proximity to trauma, is a gripping tragedy in itself, one that grows with each page. Martin’s voice carries a complexity befitting of someone doing his best to avoid violence while knowing it may be inevitable: in searching for weapons to help his community defend itself, he cannot help but invite horror upon his family and friends. Jerry seeks the same prize with clearly murderous intent, but Lashley avoids a lazy characterization by using Jerry to expose the contradictions embedded in his racist ideology: utterly destitute and impoverished, Jerry feels cut off from the success and comfort he believes his whiteness affords him. Lashley’s examination of racism is layered, both lucid in how it renders commonplace the horrible violence of the age and adept at revealing the hidden threads that connect bigotry to its deepest roots in inequality and poverty.
Full of emotion and told in a distinctive, bold voice, The Color Within is the rare literary debut that feels as assured in its ideas as it does in its execution. Like others in the Bound to Brew collection, K.A.M. Lashley’s book feels fated for our current world, a story about not only the pain of the past but also how that pain lingers and resurfaces in new forms today. Both uncomfortable and unflinching, The Color Within makes no apologies for the past and offers no compromise in what it demands of the present.Pick up your copy of K.A.M. Lashley’s debut novel The Color Within at the Bound to Brew bookshop.