As I understand it, Reading Wales Month showcases Welsh authors. I think it is probably just fine to sneak in another book SET in Wales though. At least I hope so. The Fortune Men dovetails so nicely with Sugar and Slate–the book the host blogger chose for this year’s #dewithon22. Like that book, there is the story of race, religion and what makes someone “belong” in this book, too. Plus, the novel is based on a true story–that’s always interesting.
maps showing Somalia and Wales
In the Cardiff of 1952, Somali merchant seaman Mahmood Mattan, both Black and a Muslim (but not an American “Black Muslim” of the Nation of Islam) is accused of killing white, Jewish, shop owner Violent. “Moody,” as his white Welsh wife Laura calls him, continues to proclaim his innocence and believe the British justice system will treat him fairly. But on the witness stand Moody is often his own worst enemy. He comes across as angry, arrogant, and prideful. A worse combination for an accused murder could not be imagined. But add in being Black, foreign, married to a white woman, the father of three mixed race sons, and a Muslim and you know the verdict. It would mostly be the same today, sadly.
While Moody is enduring the wait for his hearing and then his trial, we learn his life story from his boyhood in British Somaliland, to his service in the Merchant Navy (Merchant Marine to Americans) during which he sailed the seven seas and proudly lists them in a conversation.
His wife and children endure the sort of racial prejudice, threats to their security, and endless nasty looks and little put-downs that today we know as “microaggressions” while waiting to learn his fate. Moody’s attempts to shield his children are sweet and touching. We see the heart beneath the so-called “arrogance” when his children are involved.
Even at the time of the story, Cardiff has a fairly large community of foreign merchant sailors, but can residents be counted on to tell a Somali from a West African? Can they be trusted to identify the right man? Is there information that could save him that isn’t being brought forward? Does his mother-in-law know something? Does he have secrets? What about his wife?
This was a slow book to get going, but once it did I did not want to stop listening. I’m not big on crime stories, but this one really pulled me in. It was so eerily like so many court cases today. The fact that so many Black parents still feel that absolutely must teach their young sons how to interact with the police–whether the officer is Black or white. The over-zealous arrest and sentencing of Black men compared to white men committing the same exact crimes is so stark. I only know the US figures, but I honestly can’t imagine it is much different in the UK.
Moody’s mistrust of the police and his understandable unwillingness to kowtow to a bunch of white jurors when he knows he is innocent is so absolutely “today.” Except there was no d.n.a. evidence in 1952, no security cameras, to tell a different story.
I thought of his lawyer telling his that British justice treats a Duke or a man like him exactly the same, but surely he knew that was a lie, right? A Somali sailor in 1952 (or in 2022) treated the same as a Peer of the Realm–laughable.
(ouch on the word choice)
The Fortune Men: A Novel by Nadifa Mohamed