Patrick D. Smith, award-winning author of A Land Remembered, Forever Island, and other classic novels about Mississippi and Florida, wrote The Beginning in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. He offered an inside perspective on its effect on the people, both black and white, caught in the upheaval of the changing South. Now a new generation of readers can reassess the times and the decisions of those who lived through them.
Midvale is an imaginary small town in southern Mississippi in the 1960s. Life moves at a pace set by its long, hot summers and dirt-poor economy. The African-Americans know their place and pretty much keep to it in “the quarters," a dilapidated section of town. The whites, mostly merchants and farmers, know their place too, living quiet, family-oriented lives. A reasonably friendly atmosphere prevails in this segregated society. Then Washington begins passing new laws, and a current of unrest ripples through town as a few blacks, for the first time, register to vote. Angry segregationist Sim Hankins demands that Sheriff Ike Thornton do something to stop it. Sheriff Thornton has his own ideas of what should be done to improve race relations: rehabilitation of “the quarters" with indoor bathrooms, new roofs and paint, and paved streets. But his plan triggers violence between those who would keep the old ways and those willing to make a beginning toward the new. Then the outside world arrives in the form of two young white Civil Rights workers determined to start a “freedom school." The resulting violence and bloodshed carry the story to a climax not unlike the 1960s' newspaper headlines.