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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 12:09 am

A reporter’s novel brings alive characters and the Klan

No Big Thing, by William Stage. Floppinfish Publishing Company Ltd. The book is available for downloading on Kindle now. The paperback is due out in March.
Mark Twain’s often quoted observation, “write what you know” is often debated by writers. Some are critical, some supportive. But St. Louis author William Stage is a true believer in Twain’s adage. For two decades Stage worked for the weekly St. Louis newspaper, Riverfront Times. During that period, he wrote 11 books including one, Street Talk, a book of photographs and interviews with thousands of random individuals. For several years Stage worked for the Centers for Disease Control, a career that served as the basis for his novel, Creatures on Display, which I reviewed for Illinois Times in 2016.

Stage’s 12th book is a recreation of a legal battle between the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission and the Ku Klux Klan. In the late 1990s many states created Adopt-a-Highway programs, which encouraged organizations to agree to keep a portion of a highway free of litter and in exchange get a sign placed on the road recognizing their good work. On a portion of Interstate 55, a representative of the Missouri realm of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan filed an application with Missouri authorities to participate in the state’s program. A lawsuit resulted and Missouri lost.

As a reporter, Stage covered the litigation between Missouri and the Klan. Years later, driving along the interstate and passing the stretch of road where the Klan sought their permit, Stage decided to write a story of historical fiction about the event. When he began his novel, Stage probably had no idea that events of 2017 would bring the Klan and its supporters back into national prominence. In St. Louis a Confederate memorial in Forest Park came under siege, as have monuments across the nation. As Stage observes in his introductory remarks to No Big Thing, “the Civil War is alive and kicking in St. Louis.”

Whether factual or fictional, books that discuss legal cases can often find themselves bogged down in minutiae. But Stage’s novel takes a different tack. The case is the backdrop for his introduction of a cast of characters who are quirky but endearing. Whether for good or bad, the characters on the pages of this novel are the type of people that many are writing about in contemporary America as reporters, scholars and journalists attempt to solve the tragic riddle of just what happened in 2016 and continue to the present day.

No Big Thing recalls Faulkner’s admonition that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The enjoyable cast of characters portrayed are easily recognizable and could be demonstrating today for or against one side or the other in the political argument. Stage’s light style and smooth writing present an interesting story raising issues that Americans have debated since the infancy of our nation. Great fiction does more than tell an interesting story, it provokes thought and discussion beyond the book’s pages. No Big Thing does precisely that and is a book you should read.

Stuart Shiffman is a frequent contributor to the book section of Illinois Times.

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