From the words of Tim O’Brien, ‘Billy is a book that will stay with me in my dreams’ and I think I will have to agree with that too. Although Billy by Albert French can be seen to be quite a depressing and upsetting book to read, the themes and messages that French brings to light to the reader are priceless.
Based in the 1930s deep south America, Billy is a ten year old black boy who lives in the patch where all of black society live (the society is racially divided). Billy has a friend called Gumpy who one day explores the wilderness down by an area of pond water where catfish live. Down there they meet two white girls being Lori and her cousin Jenny. The girls abuse the two little black boys to the point that Gumpy runs away. However, Billy stands up to one of the white girls, Lori, stating if she comes closer to him, he will stab her. Lori is punching Billy and hurting him alot. Billy pulls out a knife on Lori and stabs. He then runs away leaving Lori to die. Jenny (the other white girl) has seen what has just happened and runs back to Lori’s parents house (being her Uncle and Aunty’s) to get help.
After Red Pasko (Lori’s father) gets Lori back and into good hands, the injury is too severe to recover from and she dies. Sheriff Tom finds out what happens and so the start to find the murderer of Lori begins. Gumpy is caught and is taken to prison. Cinder (Billy’s mother) attempts to save Billy. However, white society find Billy and take him straight to prison. During this time, the white people of society exploit their anger of Lori’s death by burning and causing damage to the patch where black folks live. Racism is a catalyst.
Billy and Gumpy are now in jail and scared out of his wits. They don’t know what is going on. They don’t understand anything: they are ten and twelve years old. Billy just wants his mother, Cinder, and simply wants to go home. Sheriff Tom talks to Billy and Gumpy and finds out Billy did kill Lori. Knowing Gumpy didn’t take part in the murder, he is punished to go and live away at some boarding place where he will be there for many years working. Billy is still in jail now by himself. From this, there is a difficult question to answer, ‘How should we punish a ten year old for murder?’ All this time, Cinder is in absolute agony that her son is in prison for murder of which only increases as the novel progresses. Katey (Cinder’s aunty) tries to comfort her throughout the novel. However, the pain Cinder feels cannot be comforted for.
With Billy being black and killing a white girl, the deep south American court consequently punish Billy in the courtroom as an adult. Therefore, he is given the death penalty of the electric chair. Billy doesn’t understand what has happened. He doesn’t understand anything. He is just a ten year old boy. Cinder has now collapsed completely. She is alive. But, on the inside, she is dead.
Although there is a case for Billy that he shouldn’t be punished as an adult, his hopes for freedom die as he is transferred from prison to death row. He still doesn’t understand anything – he just wants Cinder. During this time, the anger from the white side of society continues. Society is now split three times. All of black society want Billy to live. White society want him to die. There are now a new group of white people that feel the law is unfair and he shouldn’t die.
During death row, Billy makes a new friend called Sack man who is generally being nice to Billy. He feels for Billy and doesn’t understand why a ten year old boy is gaining the same punishment as mass murderers or even Sack man himself. Death row was an awful experience for Billy. He is by himself and is tormented by others on death row like Dil Martin who wants to remind Billy he is going to die and fry from being electrocuted It is cruel to give Billy such as punishment as death. It’s even worse what he has to go through before he dies.
There is Reverent Wagner who attempts to save Billy and reminds him Jesus is up there and is going to send him to heaven. He teaches Billy some prayers of which Billy tries to say to his mother, Cinder, of whom is able to visit Billy on death row once before he dies. This moment of the novel is extremely emotional for all characters. Billy doesn’t understand what is going on. He just wants to be with his mother and now, he finally is. Although the time spent between Billy and Cinder is short when they meet in prison, it is priceless.
The worse part of the novel is when Billy is transferred from his cell to the electric chair to get killed. Reverent Wagner is now very vocal in what he believes and stands for even to the point of being blasphemy. Billy constantly struggles screaming how he doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t want to be burned like Dil Martin keeps giggling and reminding him on death row. Billy is now screaming for Jesus to help him.
When Billy is put in front of the crowd and sees the electric chair, his screams and struggling become more frantic. He doesn’t want to die. During this time of Billy struggling, Reverent Wagner is reading one last prayer for Billy. Before he finishes, Billy is electrocuted:
Billy chokes and gasps in the dark of the of his death mask. Then his mind bursts open, his thoughts spark and catch fire, he shakes and flies into the air and jolts when the straps jerk him back The loose-fitting death mask flies from his face.
At the point of electrocution, it is very graphic in what happens. The novel finishes with Cinder:
Cinder sat and cried all night. Mississippi’s sky stayed dark.
Billy is probably one of French’s best books. He has used racism of the 1930s to bring forward how socially divided society is in deep south America. The whole book is about the journey of Billy. Did he ever have hope? Maybe not. It was Billy, a ten year old boy that didn’t understand truly what he had done, against a white society with anger wanting revenge on Lori. French hasn’t finished the book just there. Leading off from where Billy ended, he wrote another book entitled Cinder. When I have the time, I will definitely give this book a read too. It does seem Cinder was the one character that suffered the most in Billy and as the reader, we share the grief. How is Cinder going to cope after the death of Billy? Cinder the novel should answer this…