The latest assignment from my editor is to write a paragraph for the back cover. He said to highlight the key places, people and events in the book, and convey the chronological and geographic scope. And please do all that in 125 words or less.
The assignment reminded me of an exercise I used when teaching beginning reporting at the University of Mary Washington here in Fredericksburg. I would give the class the facts of a police incident, including the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as a police quote, victim quote and eyewitness quote. The students had to tell their stories in 250 words or less. When they finished, I asked them to rewrite their stories in 100 words or less, and then once more in 50 words or less. The exercise showed how flabby most writing is, and how much of their stories could be preserved, even with tight editing, if they spent the time needed to rewrite. Google tells me it was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, who was the first to say, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.”
So here’s what my book is about in 125 words or less. (Actually it’s 123 words.)
Fauquier County, Va., 1932. A black man is found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. A mob sets fire to the body. Officials identify the remains as Shedrick Thompson, wanted for the abduction and rape of a white woman. They say Thompson killed himself, the final act of a desperate fugitive. But residents who hunted him know better. They say he was the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.
The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia takes a close look at Thompson’s crimes and his death, the actions of his neighbors, and the official cover-up. It touches on themes still discussed, including our struggles with class and race. And it offers a new reading on Virginia history, one more complex and disturbing than previously believed.