A historical-literary novel, The Empty Cell follows four characters whose lives are upended by a lynching and trial in South Carolina in 1947 as they search for their own forms of freedom during the Jim Crow fifties up to the early days of the civil rights movement. Given our present moment of national reckoning regarding racial injustice, The Empty Cell is a timely book.
Watch Paulette's Interview
In the interview Paulette discusses the origins of the The Empty Cell, the process of writing it, growing up during the Jim Crow era in the fifties, self-publishing, and what a white woman like her was doing writing about black characters (!). Here’s the youtube link for it. If you have a smart TV, you can say “Key West Public Library” into your remote control’s microphone and click on “OneChainofIslandOneBook.”
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- What did you like most about this novel? Were you most drawn to the characters, the writing, the emotional storylines, or learning about the history?
- Which character did you feel the most emotionally connected to? Why?
- Did you learn things about the Jim Crow era you didn’t know, and if so, how did you feel about that?
- Does Lee Trammell seem like a willing or unwilling participant in the lynching of Willie Earle?
- How would you describe Alma’s experience in the cornfield at the end of Chapter 5? Do you think her religious/spiritual beliefs are a source of strength? Distress? Both?
- Lawton had been intensely attracted to Harry, both emotionally and physically, but was often disgusted (initially and subsequently) by those feelings and by Harry himself. What do you think the source of that disgust was? What kind of psychological impact might this simultaneous feeling of desire and disgust have on an individual?
- Betsy’s friend Zora acts as a kind of informal tutor on the issues of race and race relations. What are some of the things Betsy learned from her?
- Reflect on Alma’s thought that “Maybe change was the Holy Spirit” (p. 349). What do you think Alma was trying to reconcile with that thought?
- What is the connection between the dream that Betsy has that the cell door isn’t even locked and her decision to call off the wedding with Tim?
- Alma tells Pretty, “It’s all part of the same thing” (p. 395). How does that statement explain the choices that Alma has made? What about the ones Pretty has made/is making?
[Thanks to Scott Henderson, friend and Furman University Professor, for his input on these questions!]
Excerpt From 'The Empty Cell'
Earlier that afternoon, Lawton had driven out to see the site where Earle was killed on old Bramlett Road, near a slaughterhouse, of all places, on a lane called Gethsemane, of all names. The slaughterhouse, which was no longer in operation, was a rickety wood structure with a high shingled roof where farmers brought their livestock to be killed and processed. It was hard, dirty, bloody work, the slaughter of those beasts on a daily basis, the stripping of their hides and then hoisting them by their hind legs on pulleys to hang from metal beams above.
The tall scrawny pines in the adjoining woods competed for whatever sun they could reach and whatever nutrients they could derive from the poor soil. Lawton parked near a deep ditch full of brown weeds and briars and jumped it to walk into the forest. The police had been all over the site initially, but now the place was totally deserted, evoking an empty, melancholy feel. They hadn’t gone far into the woods, and the actual killing hadn’t taken that long. But it must have been an eternity to Willie Earle, from the time he heard voices and footsteps on the jail stairs to the time he lay pulverized on the brown pine needles.
Readers' Responses to "The Empty Cell"
“Mesmerizing. Stirring. Unforgettable. It’s been a long, long while since I’ve experienced a single novel this immersive, this transformative. Bravo.”
“This beautifully crafted book captures the reality of life for a diverse host of characters affected by a racially-charged mob murder in a southern town in 1947. It is a page turner. Story telling at its authentic best. The voices of each character ring true. The ripple impact of the Willie Earl incident is explored over the course of many years. Perfect book for a book club discussion. Multiple themes.”
“THE EMPTY CELL held my attention with every page and I could hardly put it down. The characters are well fleshed out and relatable, even though they are put in a situation most of us will never know. I was disappointed when the book ended because I felt like I was leaving friends. A great book for a partner read or a book club. There is so much fodder for discussion.”
“The Empty Cell is a remarkable book–an astonishing blend of fact, fiction, and truth-telling. The death of Willie Earle in 1947–the last racially motivated lynching in South Carolina–is the before/after moment in the lives of several unforgettable characters, each of whom charts their compelling journeys in the years and decades following this horrible murder. Set in Upstate South Carolina and New York City, the narrative forces readers to reflect on the consequences of racial injustice, discrimination, and intolerance–in addition to the fast-moving currents of social change during the 1950s and 1960s. This book is as timely as it is moving–a triumph of historical sleuthing, creative inspiration, and an impassioned plea for us to recognize our shared humanity.”
“A magnificent, compelling, beautifully told story of life in the pre-Civil Rights South. Characters are richly developed, writing is evocative and moving. Resonates with the events of today. Ms. Alden presents a richly painted portrait of life in that era through the eyes of multiple characters. Fabulous book. Couldn’t put it down.”
“I was riveted from page one, and I couldn’t put this book down. I feel deeply connected to all the characters and awakened in a new way about our racial issues in this country. The characters have been living in my head for days. This is an important and touching story. I highly recommend it to all.”
“The blurbs and descriptions on this site tell you what The Empty Cell is about. But what they don’t say is how perfectly Alden captures the time, the setting, and the dark and wrenching significance and details of the main event and its aftermath. It has the flavor of To Kill a Mockingbird — the languid atmosphere of the South, the food, the night sounds and the language, but it is not imitative. It is richly detailed, very cinematic, the characters vivid. Its relevance to today’s political and social climate — 73 years later — is remarkable and scary, though Alden made no special effort to make it so. A stay-up-past-your-bedtime page-turner!”
“I just finished The Empty Cell and was sad to turn the last page. Such a perfect blend of actual historical events and fictionalized characters. Especially in these times, it serves as an important reminder of how far back America’s racial issues go and how important it is that we all re-dedicate ourselves to change.”
From the Critic's Report, The BookLife Prize
Plot: Alden’s plot follows a logical sequence of historical events and is crisp, penetrating, and well-paced. Despite the topic’s complexity, the storyline is straightforward and easy to follow.
Prose/Style: Alden’s prose is both informal and eloquent, enhancing the storyline while driving home period-appropriate speech. Told in the first person, Trammell’s voice is necessarily coarse, offensive, and tortured.
Originality: Readers will quickly recognize the historical fiction elements in Alden’s work, but the novel is unique in its use of secondary characters to illuminate and interconnect opposing sides.
Character Development/Execution: The Empty Cell‘s characters are both powerful and unforgettable. Alma Stone outshines the other protagonists with her unflinching stoicism, and the deplorable Lee Trammell will take readers on an intense journey of angst-ridden guilt and self-condemnation.
Blurb: A heart-wrenching account of a 1940s, racist-fueled murder in the Deep South that will pummel readers with grief, unease, and awakening.
Midwest Book Review
Paulette Alden’s new novel, The Empty Cell, with its firm roots in history, is a compelling saga set in the world of racial segregation in the 1950s. It should be on the reading list of anyone interested in Southern history, especially the Jim Crow era.
Alden’s story is based on an actual lynching, that of Willie Earle, a young Black man, in Greenville, South Carolina in 1947. He had been arrested on suspicion of killing a white cab driver, and was taken from jail by a mob of cabbies who beat, stabbed and shot him to death.
The novel follows four richly drawn characters, each of whom has been affected, either directly or indirectly, by Earle’s death. Each embarks on a journey to find a way out of the social and racial constraints that bind them. Lee Trammell, one of the twenty-eight cab drivers acquitted at trial, knows he is guilty and struggles with the aftermath of his actions. Alma Stone, a Black woman who works as a maid and who loved Willie when he was a child, leaves the South after his murder, only to discover that Harlem too has its prejudices and racial injustice. Lawton Chastain, a closeted gay prosecutor, realizes he must end his conventional marriage and change his life in order to find happiness; and Betsy Chastain, Lawton’s young daughter, has a racial awakening that leads to an interracial affair.
Readers will be drawn into this absorbing novel powered by the characters’ different experiences arising from a shared life-changing event. The Empty Cell is an important and timely testimony concerning this nation’s roots, its entangled racial mindsets, and how far we have—or haven’t—come since the 1950s.
– D.Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review