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c.2023, Viking
$30
432 pages

Who’s in charge around here?

That would be you, the person at the top of the chain, the head honcho, the Fearless Leader. Your desk is where the buck stops in your organization. Everything is in your hands and you’re in charge — but, as in the new book “A Fever in the Heartland” by Timothy Egan, don’t get too comfortable on that throne.

When the Ku Klux Klan first appeared, they came in the night and people thought they were ghosts — which was the point. None of the six original founders, nor any of their subsequent followers wanted to be known as a member of the Klan in those post-Civil War years, and being ghost-like kept their secrets. Then, the Klan was mostly in the South, although filmmaker D.W Griffith and Washington politics weren’t against its spread. But by 1922, the Klan had slowly crept northward.

Up north, in Indiana, D.C. Stephenson, who went by the name “Steve,” was a “young man on the make,” just starting a new life in Evansville, and he noticed what was happening. He knew the Klan had vowed to keep Evansville mostly white and Protestant, and that made him almost giddy. This was something Steve could sink his teeth into.

That spring, he ran for Congress on a platform that promised to fight for the Klan on behalf of every white person in Indiana. In short order, he’d worked his way up and was the leader of the nation’s fastest-growing KKK chapter in the north.

One year later, though a handful of people quietly fought against what Steve was doing, he was a powerful man who did whatever he wanted to do, bragging that he was the law in Indiana. But his swagger hid something that few knew: Steve was a predator and an alcoholic, and before the spring of 1925 was out, he was also a murderer with a corpse as a witness.

That was when those against him knew it was time to take the Klan down …

For readers who have no patience for laying out the long facts, “A Fever in the Heartland” can be a bit of frustration.

It starts off with a meeting that, despite good intentions, is clearly not going to end well at all. Author Timothy Egan then switches to a history of the Klan, which is informative and necessary and slides into a long, long horror story of the terrorism of an entire state by a man who gained power with frightening speed. The length of it may numb you to the terror, and getting to the meat of the story — the subtitle’s promise — feels like forever.

The good news is that when it does, the frustration dissipates immediately and you’ll be turning pages like they’re on fire. Things happen quickly here, as you begin to see how “A Fever in the Heartland” might resonate for modern readers. If you relish that kind of historical crime drama, look hard at your to-be-read pile and put this one on the top.

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