Southern Strategy [Novel]

In his long career as a journalist, Bob Lancaster wrote a single novel, Southern Strategy, based upon and perhaps inspired by his experiences as a young reporter during the crisis that followed the showdown between Governor Orval E. Faubus and the federal courts over school desegregation at Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957. Southern Strategy, published in 1981 by Seaview Books of New York, followed the moral journey of its picaresque main character, Amos Shellnut, a contented sawmill worker whose life in a small town outside Little Rock is disrupted by the sudden flight of his sweetheart Norma to Hollywood to seek her destiny and also by discombobulations in his town caused by Faubus’s racial demagoguery.

In the novel, Shellnut, a World War II prisoner who survived the Bataan Death March and who was purposely disengaged from politics and social movements, is inspired to make his life mean something after confronting a plot by white supremacists led by his brother to take over the local government. The inspiration is to enter politics, running for sheriff from a jail cell against his craven brother and the local Klan.

Like the novelist Charles Portis and the journalist Mike Trimble, both of whom gained local fame by writing the Arkansas Gazette’s “Our Town” column, Lancaster’s literary power lay in the colorful diction, dialogue, and creative vocabulary of the country boys and men—and sometimes women—who populated his novel and much of his nonfiction. Readers can catch the flavor by the third paragraph of Southern Strategy, a note that Norma leaves for Amos before she catches the Trailways bus at the Terminal Hotel for Hollywood:

Listen, sugar—

I’m sorry and all but I’m leaving. I hope you understand. I’m doing it for both of us and would just die if I didn’t. I’m 36 years old and maybe still have time but none to waste. So forgive me and when I make a million $$$ I will send it to you so you wont have to work at the dumb mill any more and can do something great with your life too, OK? Whats mine has always been yours anyway if you know what I mean, ha. Well I don’t guess this is a time for jokes. I wouldn’t sneak off like this but you know you would talk me out of it the other way. Again. I love you more than anything. I hope you believe that and wont forget it. Well I got to go catch the bus now.

LOVE, Norma.

P.S. You will have to eat supper at the cafe. I’m sorry for not cooking but I just couldn’t.

P.S. jr. Oh, I paid the light bill.

The copyright page of Southern Strategy carries the half-serious warning, probably by Lancaster: “The people and events described or depicted in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to actual incidents or individuals is unintended and coincidental.” But knowledgeable Arkansas readers of the book could be forgiven for attaching some significance to a signal event in Arkansas history that involved both the author and the chief antagonist in his book—the former governor. One giveaway was that Lancaster’s hometown of Sheridan (Grant County) had forced nearly all Black residents out of the town after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in 1954 and 1955 ordering school integration; the same was depicted in Southern Strategy’s mythical town of Sherman. As a young reporter for the Pine Bluff Commercial covering the Arkansas General Assembly in 1965, Lancaster went into the basement of the Capitol to report on an attempt by Black college students to integrate the Capitol cafeteria, which had been declared a private club that barred Black patrons. The students were repulsed by state troopers with billy clubs, and Lancaster was among those who were clubbed. Faubus denounced him that night as a leader of the troublemakers, which was untrue.

Until he retired from writing in 2013 in the midst of a devastating illness, Lancaster was always prolific, sometimes half-filling a thick monthly magazine with his reporting, historical research, and musings. But Southern Strategy was his only venture into pure fiction, aside from his speculative reveries on Arkansas life in a third-person memoir he titled Going Down for Gum Wrappers: About Rassling, Jesus, Playing Ball, High Society, Running for High Office, Life and All, which August House published in 1986.

For additional information:
Lancaster, Bob. Going Down for Gum Wrappers. Little Rock: August House, 1986.

———. The Jungles of Arkansas: A Personal History of the Wonder State. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989.

———. Southern Strategy. New York: Seaview Books, 1981.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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