In an unnamed Southern city in the hot summer of 1963, four girls die in a church bombing, a white merchant who impulsively takes down the Jim Crow signs in his store is harassed by segregationists, every day brings new protests and counterattacks, and a black handyman and a white cop are killed when a stick of dynamite inexplicably explodes between them. Thirty years later, the sons of these two men return to the city of their birth, one a minister, the other a writer, each seeking clues to the fathers who were literally blown from their young lives. Their journeys, and that of their fathers before them, are told in chapters that alternate between 1963, when the truth seemed obvious but unattainable, and 1993, when the barriers are down but the facts are elusive and often suprising. The novel telling these interwoven stories is a satisfying, compelling examination of race and human relations, the terrible cost of the sins of the past, and the promise of racial healing.
Cutting back and forth in time, Robbins deftly fictionalizes the fight for racial equality, dramatizing courageous demonstrations and vicious retaliations, and setting in motion a compelling cast of diverse characters who embody every fear, doubt, and conviction aroused by these momentous changes. In his plainly told yet empathic and suspenseful tale, Robbins makes this epic historic moment human again——personal, confounding, terrifying, and necessary——and reminds us of all that we’ve overcome and all that we must yet achieve.
Danger crackles through Ken Robbins’s City of Churches
like sudden lightning at summer outing, with everybody running for shelter and trying to sidestep the bolts. The city, never named in the novel, is obviously Birmingham, Alabama, in the year 1963, the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation. While the subject is black versus white, the whole spectrum of humanity is represented in amazingly compassionate portraits of two families caught in the storm of bigotry, hatred, betrayal, and bloodshed.
—Ron Robinson, author of Thunder Dreamer and Diamond Trump
No matter what we think of history, and I am a big fan of history, the best of history is told through stories. All the great philosophers, all the great seers use stories. Kenneth Robbins is learning from the very best. City of Churches
brings the story to life. A great effort. A rewarding story.
There are times when powerful fiction can bring to life the tragic, troubled past in ways that factual histories cannot. Kenneth Robbins has written just that sort of novel. His compelling story reminds us that never should we forget the brutality that rocked our region and bathed it in the blood of innocents four decades ago. In helping us remember, he helps us hope that, in the word of the anthem, we shall overcome—some day.
—John Seigenthaler, founder, The First Amendment Center