A Storm Came Up

Former sports writer Doug Segrest takes on racial tension and

violence in his new novel.

by Loyd McIntosh   Photo by Beau Gustafson

Sports writer turned author Doug Segrest

Set in the fictional town of Takasaw, Alabama, Segrest’s the bulk of the novel follows these three young men through the summer and fall of 1963, five years after the racially motivated murder and some of the town’s leadership is ready to integrate Takasaw High School.

The year is 1958. It’s September, late in the day. The sun is setting, and three boys are trying to make it home in time for dinner or face a certain wrath from various and sundry authority figures. While riding bikes around the outskirts of their rural small town, the boys encounter a freak thunderstorm and a flat tire and take an ill-conceived shortcut through the woods. The boys find themselves lost. Being forced to rough it for a night in the Alabama wilderness is the least of their problems.  There are a couple of twists that make the trek home much more dangerous than they could ever imagine.

First, two of the boys—cousins Braxton Freeman and Andy Laduke—are white, while their friend, Moses Burks, is black, a fact that makes it all more important to get off the streets before sundown. Why? That brings up the second point. While hiding in the woods the boys witness a brutal murder of a black college student at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Actually, to call it brutal would be an understatement.

Traumatized by what they’ve just seen and aware that divulging this information could endanger them, the boys decide their only course of action is to remain quiet and do their best to go about their normal routines—and for a while they’re able to do just that. However, what they don’t know at the time is that this crime, its perpetrator and the racial tension at the heart of such a vicious act would eventually rip their hometown in two and very nearly cost them their lives.

This is how longtime sports writer for The Birmingham News, Doug Segrest, opens up his debut novel, A Storm Came Up. Taking on the violence, tension and upheaval of small-town civil-rights-era Alabama through the eyes of three teenagers doing their best to make sense of their divided yet inseparable worlds at a crossroads, Segrest’s story takes a realistic look at Alabama’s checkered past while allowing the reader to lose himself in a can’t-put-it down thriller.

Set in the fictional town of Takasaw, Ala., the bulk of Segrest’s novel follows these three young men through the summer and fall of 1963, five years after the racially motivated murder, when some of the town’s leadership is ready to integrate Takasaw High School. The volatile combination of forward-thinking civic leaders, hardline Klansman, segregationist governor George Wallace and his willing accomplishes, a national media putting a white-hot spotlight on the tiny community, and a handful of teenagers who just want to finish high school in peace threaten to destroy the town from within in this fictionalized telling of similar accounts in our state’s not-too-distant past.

Segrest modeled Takasaw after his hometown of Tuskegee, a city with a population of educated black and white middle-class residents which, he says, offered a unique perspective on the civil rights struggle and a perfect backdrop for A Storm Came Up. “Tuskegee was very dynamic in those days,” Segrest says. “It was totally different than anywhere else. It was only 20 miles from Auburn, but it felt like it was a million miles away. Montgomery was close by, so we had the big city, too.”

Of course, what Segrest really knows is sports, and followers of his work in The Birmingham News will not be disappointed with A Storm Came Up. The book’s main characters are both talented football players with hopes of earning college scholarships after their senior seasons—Braxton Freeman at Takasaw High School, and Moses Burks at the high school at Takasaw Institute, the Negro college modeled after Tuskegee Institute. The plot revolves around the recruitment of Burks by Takasaw head coach Roy Halladay. A tough football coach who once played with Bear Bryant for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Halladay pushes had for the black teenager to join the all-white team at Takasaw, partly because he honestly wants to see the school integrated, but also because he knows Moses will give him his shot at an undefeated season.

Plans to peacefully integrate the school and the football team collapse after the local Klansman begin a series of visible protests during the day and acts of terrorism under cover of darkness. One of those Klansmen is Braxton’s own cousin, Andy Laduke. Eventually, the threesome’s knowledge of the brutal murder committed by the head of the local Klan comes to light, with shattering consequences.

Segrest wrote A Storm Came Up from a third-person perspective, painting the picture with plenty of detail while telling the story at a healthy jogger’s pace, only slowing down or speeding up to a gallop at various points to add suspense. “I write very much with a newspaper style,” Segrest says. “The paragraphs and sentences aren’t overly long, and the book flows at a very fast pace.

“This is also a very visual book. As you read you see it as though you’re watching a movie,” Segrest adds.

Self-published through Authorhouse, Segrest says he hopes his book will find a niche among people who enjoy stories about real people in a marketplace crowded with titles about werewolves, sorcerers and vampires.  “I love writers like Robert Ludlow, John Grisham and Tom Clancy,” Segrest says. “I wanted it to have some suspense and to keep their readers on the edge of theirs seats.”

Of course, treating subject matter like racism and teenagers coming of age honestly and truthfully means having to deal with certain language and subject matter, such as racial epithets and sexual encounters. Segrest didn’t whitewash anything with A Storm Came Up, therefore young readers and their parents as well as those who may find certain terminology difficult to endure may want to think it through before sitting down with the book. However, those who aren’t afraid to look at an accurate portrayal of the past while getting lost in a good thriller should give Segrest’s novel a shot.

“This book does have some strong language, but it really was the way people talked back then,” Segrest says. “I haven’t had any controversy about it so far. I asked my son to read it and he told me he hears worse on The Family Guy. I can’t make that determination for other parents, but I think it could have great appeal to older kids.”

A Storm Came Up is available at most area bookstores, including Books -A-Million, Barnes & Noble and Alabama Booksmith. It is also available for download on Kindle, Nook and other digital readers

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