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American Ghost

A Novel


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About The Book

A complex and compulsively readable novel about how unresolved family history and the racial tensions of the past threaten a love affair between two young Floridians.

Jolie Hoyt is a good Southern girl living in Hendrix, a small Florida Panhandle town. All too aware of her family’s closet full of secrets and long-held distrust of outsiders, Jolie throws caution to the wind when she meets Sam Lense, a Jewish anthropology student from Miami, who is in town to study the ethnic makeup of the region.

Jolie and Sam fall recklessly in love, but their affair ends abruptly when Sam is discovered to have pried too deeply into Hendrix’s dark racial history and he becomes the latest victim in a long tradition of small-town violence. Twelve years later, Jolie and Sam are forced to revisit the unresolved issues of their young love and finally shed light on the ugly history of Jolie’s hometown. A complex and compulsively readable Southern saga, American Ghost is a richly woven exploration of how the events of our past haunt our present.


American Ghost Chapter One
Though rumors of Jolie Hoyt’s star-crossed romance with Sam Lense would dog her reputation for many years to come, in truth their grand affaire was a little short of grand: barely three months long, and as quickly ended as it had begun.

To the casual observer, it bore all the earmarks of a swift, overheated bit of late-adolescent romance and might never have happened at all if not for the inspired manipulations of Jolie’s best friend, Lena Lucas, who would later rise to minor-celebrity status as the dashing wife of an international televangelist darling. Lena would often be seen on TV, sitting in the front pew of her husband’s enormous church and beaming up at him with childlike devotion.

But those days were far in the future, and back then, in the final weeks of summer ’96, Lena was technically not even legal, being seven months shy of her eighteenth birthday. She’d come late to Jolie’s childhood, halfway through their freshman year of high school, when Lena’s father had retired from the air force and taken a part-time job managing a KOA campground in the tiny backwater of Hendrix, two hours southwest of Tallahassee, between the Apalachicola River and the coast. Their meeting was inevitable as Hendrix was hardly more than a crossroads—a scattering of bait shops and churches and listing cracker dogtrots and trailers, with nothing but the river and the National Forest to recommend it.

Lena had caused a stir the moment she set foot in town, for reasons of her personality, which was effervescent, and her looks, which were extraordinary. She was northern Italian on her mother’s side and had inherited all the attendant excitability a Milanese DNA might imply, along with the copper-blond hair, olive skin, and charming, pointed-chin smile. It made for a potent package, and added to the general astonishment of her beauty was the small matter of her dress. Her father’s last berth had been at Homestead Air Force Base outside Miami, where Lena had adopted a casual, seminaked personal style: bikini string tops and frayed jean shorts; pink toenails and well-worn flip-flops.

To say that it was a compelling combination would be a great understatement: when she went to work for her father at the counter of the concession stand at fifteen, she’d inadvertently caused a countywide run on live crickets and bait minnows. Jolie’s brother, Carl, was among the stampede of local men wanting to make her acquaintance. Being an unrepentant skirt chaser and fine sampler of local female flesh, he made it his business to hard-sell Lena on salvation and bring her to his father’s church, El Bethel Assembly. Ostensibly this was to save her soul, though Jolie surmised that he was really looking for a place to keep her in semivirginal storage while he finished sowing his wild oats.

Jolie never delved too far into the arrangement, but she had an eye for the colorful and a taste for the eccentric, and she and Lena became quick and inseparable friends. They proved perfect foils for each other as Jolie was her near opposite: brooding and inverted, and a singularly local product—a direct descendant of the two hardy Hoyt brothers who’d sailed to Spanish West Florida from Edinburgh in the trackless days of colonial trading, half a century before General Jackson began clearing the swamps of the Indians. With true Scotch efficiency, they had adjusted to the alien culture by marrying a string of hardworking, thirteen-year-old Indian wives. Between them, they produced a virtual tribe of handsome, half-breed children who shunned outside interference and intermarried with their Scotch-Indian cousins for decades to come. Jolie was, at eighteen, a perfect example of their legacy: tall and dark-haired and fair-skinned, with a level, hazel gaze and a natural reticence made worse by the loss of her mother to breast cancer when Jolie was three. Her grief had cut deep and all but silenced her.

Lena proved outgoing enough to breach the great silence, and after Carl was foisted off to Bible school in punishment for a minor moral lapse, she’d practically moved into the parsonage with Jolie and her father; she even joined El Bethel. There, she was duly saved and baptized and Spirit-filled, though she confided to Jolie that she would never give up makeup or dancing or wearing practically invisible bikinis, not unless the angel Gabriel himself required it. This sort of good-natured defiance wouldn’t have been tolerated in an earlier day, but by the midnineties, Bethel had shrunk to a few dozen faithful members, mostly old ladies (the Sisters, Lena called them, because they were called thus: Sister Noble or Sister Lynne or Sister Wright), who gave themselves fully to the Pentecostal experience, with waved hankies and shouts and many messages in tongues. Physically, it was nothing more than a simple country church of the sort that you see all over the South, white and unassuming, perched on the side of the road in the shape of a large shoebox. There were Sunday-school rooms below and a sanctuary above, small and Pentecostal-spare, with concrete floors and hard wooden pews, a faded banner from the 1925 glory days still attached to the ceiling behind the pulpit, pale lavender inscribed in Gothic script: Without a vision the people perish.

The Sisters called it the Tabernacle.

Lena joined Jolie as official church pet, their bond only strengthening as they finished high school and became ever more dedicated to the high calling of art (both were fledgling artists), joined in a single overweening ambition: to get out of Hendrix, as soon as they could, forever and amen. To that end, they excelled at every art class offered at Cleary High, hoping to snag scholarships at some up-and-coming art school, knowing they were at the mercy of staid admission boards, as their fathers were good men but hadn’t much in the way of educational funds.

But Jolie and Lena were both bright and naturally gifted, and certain they’d win favor in some corner. After settling on design as their major (thanks in no small part to the popularity of Designing Women), they had set about their first official project: redecorating the living room of the parsonage, a dicey proposition as Brother Hoyt had given them a budget of precisely $25. Fortunately, both of them were natural-born junkers and they spent the better part of their senior year mixing paint and cruising garage sales and rebuilding old lamps and tables that the Sisters had donated to the project. The result was colorful and strange and apt to change by the week as new paint or plants or lumber was donated or otherwise uncovered. Some weeks, the room was calm and natural, with fern-green walls and khaki slipcovers and muted rugs. Some weeks, the walls were brilliant red, the pillows turquoise, the wood floors bare, only the slipcovers (too expensive to change) the same. Whether it was going well or falling apart, the girls kept their weekends free and spent their Friday nights in Cleary, and their Saturdays forty miles west in Panama City, where they lay on the beach and cruised the strip and ate 99-cent bean burritos at Taco Bell.

So it went, till college acceptance letters were sent out in October, when contrary to all prediction Lena had snagged a full scholarship at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), while Jolie was turned down flat, her ACTs not up to par; too weak in math, a helpful counselor had penciled in the margin on her official letter of rejection. She’d been so set on SCAD that she hadn’t applied elsewhere, and as graduation approached, her single option was a need-based grant to a community college thirty miles away, which she would commute to in the same rattling school bus she had ridden into town to Cleary High.

She pretended indifference, but as their senior year passed and graduation was upon them, Lena became increasingly convinced that if Jolie was left in Hendrix to her own devices, she would bail on college altogether and backslide into the aimless half-life she’d led before they met: hanging out with the old Sisters at church; lounging around her bedroom, listening to AM radio. Lena worried over it for months and, in the end, came up with a purely Milanese solution. What Jolie needed, Lena decided, was a man. And not just any man. Jolie needed a husband, in the strictest Roman sense of the word, one who’d stare down the Hoyts and rescue her from Hendrix and, in return for good, regular sex, serve as the springboard to the rest of her life.

Once she made up her mind, Lena was nothing if not tenacious and she spent most of the summer searching high and low for such a man, which wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, in Hendrix. She had no success at all till the brink of her departure, on the third Saturday in August, when Sam Lense appeared like an answer to prayer at the high counters of the KOA commissary, checking in for a four-month stay. Lena volunteered to give him the official tour and, by supper, had extracted an encyclopedic amount of information on his past, present, and future plans.

He was South Miami–born, the youngest of three sons, and a first-semester grad student at UF, in Hendrix for a single semester, on some sort of field grant with the Department of the Interior (or maybe UF). Lena didn’t pay too much attention to his academic qualifications: he was blunt, talkative, straight, and single, and the chances of his staying in Hendrix one hour longer than his degree required were absolutely nil. To Lena, that was qualification enough.

Oh, he had his shortcomings: he was too old for Jolie, and something less than tall, and talking Jolie into going on a date with a Yankee would be such a pain in the butt. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. Truth be told, Jolie had more than a few caveats of her own. She had the essential attributes (that is, the breasts) to attract a man, but her religion was weird, her personal style slouchy, and her xenophobia an ongoing battle. The Hoyts’ treatment of strangers was both hostile and secretly superior, as the Hoyts were shiftless, but smart, and they knew it.

Fortunately, Sam Lense looked to be a pretty sharp cookie himself, with the well-fed, horndog look of a man who’d never met a breast he didn’t like. Lena was cautiously optimistic that Jolie’s sulkiness would prove a minor distraction to such a man; her petulance trumped by her tits, so to speak.

With the craftiness of a master spy, Lena withheld all hint of a fix-up and waited till late in the afternoon of their final Friday-night-go-to-town supper to call Jolie at the parsonage, and in her best fake you’re-going-to-kill-me voice, Lena confessed that she had invited someone to come along—a guy from the campground. No, Jolie hadn’t met him. His name was Sam and he was from Miami. He’d been there only a week.

Jolie’s response was quick and expected. “God help us, Lena—you’re not trying to fix me up with another stray from the campground? On our last weekend? Is nothing sacred?”

Lena knew she was busted, but lied with great conviction. “It’s not a fix-up. He’s just some guy I met, doing some kind of study with the museum, doesn’t know a soul. I told him about the shrimp special at the café and he asked to come—and what was I supposed to do? Say no?”

“Does he know how old you are?” Jolie inserted curiously, as Lena’s being underage had made her the subject of a few local cautionary tales.

“Yes, he knows how old I am,” Lena answered patiently. “I told you, it’s not a date. Gosh, Jol, he’s just a nice guy—not one of your local plowboys looking for someone to iron their clothes and sweep their trailer. It’ll do you good to meet him—give you a taste of the Big World outside of Hendrix.”

There was a prolonged silence on the phone, an almost audible rolling of the eyes, though Lena could detect a thawing. “Come and go to supper with us, and if anything good is playing, we can go to the movies—or not,” she inserted, knowing she’d overstepped. “We’ll eat supper and come straight home. I need to finish packing anyway.”

Jolie exhaled a pained breath at the reminder of her abandonment, but in the end relented, if grudgingly. “Okay. But listen, Lena, if you get carried away and invite him to the beach, I swear I’ll call Daddy and have him come and get me. I will.”

Lena was never more charming than after a successful seduction. “Deal,” she sang, then without pause asked, what was Jolie wearing? What did her hair look like? Did she have on eyeliner?

“I thought he was just some guy from the campground. That it wasn’t a date.”

“It isn’t,” Lena assured her. “But go put on some eyeliner, Jol. You look so much better with eyeliner. Just a little brown eyeliner, and lip gloss—the melon one I got you for Easter. Be there in a jiff,” she squeaked, and, before Jolie could answer, was gone.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for American Ghost includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


You could say Jolie Hoyt and Sam Lense were star-crossed lovers; the small-town daughter of a Pentecostal preacher tangled up with a Jewish graduate student from Miami; unresolved family histories and long kept secrets bubbling threateningly close to the surface. Only by breaking through the silence would they have any chance at uncovering the truth and ultimately finding peace. Janis Owens’ original narrative voice brings her characters to life and plunges us deep into the Florida panhandle, while the irresistible combination of romance, history, and suspense keeps the pages turning.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. In the opening paragraph of the book, we learn that Jolie and Sam’s relationship was “barely three months long, and as quickly ended as it had begun.” (p. 3) How did this knowledge affect your reading of the first part of the book? Why do you think the author chose to disclose this information up front?
2. The book is broken up into two separate parts: “The Indian Study” and “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost.” How would you characterize each part of the story? How do they tell the same story and/or different stories?
3. Some of the characters change remarkably from teenagers to adults. Carl and Lena, for instance, both reinvent themselves in adulthood. Is the same true for Sam and Jolie? Discuss these characters as teenagers versus adults. How do they change? How do they stay the same?
4. Everyone, including Sam, seems to look with suspicion on Jolie’s relationship with Hugh. Discuss their unique relationship, including its sudden dissolution.
5. Discuss the significance of the “fangers,” or fingers, throughout the story. What do they represent in general and to different characters?
6. After so many years and so much silence, why do you think Jolie decides to speak out about the fingers at her town meeting?
7. Jolie tells Sam that she knew she would lose him because “women in Hendrix lose everything, eventually—friends, money, mothers. It’s a losing kind of place. You tremble every minute for your love.”(p. 262) Do you think this is a belief that Jolie felt resigned to or compelled to fight against?
8. Discuss the narration throughout the story. While Jolie comes through as the main character, how does the third-person narrator shape the story?
9. While there are several stories unraveling throughout the course of the book, they all somehow tie back into the lynching of Henry Kite. Talk about how each of the main characters is affected by Kite. How did reading Uncle Ott’s experience of the lynching affect your view of Kite or of what happened to him and his family?
10. Why do you think Carl waited so long to tell Sam who shot him? Why do you think Carl told Sam and not Jolie?
11. Discuss the resolution of the mysteries surrounding Sam’s shooting and the missing fingers. Were the answers they got enough for both Sam and the Fraziers? Where do you think the fingers were and what might have caused someone to turn them in, seemingly out of nowhere?
12. Who or what do you think the title American Ghost refers to? Do you think the ghost is one person? Discuss the impression it gives of the story and what you think it might mean.

Enhance Your Book Club

American Ghost is a fictional representation of current efforts to uncover the truth behind the famous Claude Neal lynching that took place in Marianna, Florida, in 1934. Learn more by reading The Beast in Florida: A History of Anti-Black Violence by Marvin Dunn or read Ben Montgomery’s investigative piece in The Tampa Bay Times:
Does your hometown have any dark history? Or perhaps it has a proud past? Do a little research online and bring any findings to share at your book club meeting.
Janis Owens is not only a great storyteller, but she can cook, too! Check out her cookbook-cum-memoir, The Cracker Kitchen, and try out a recipe or two to serve during discussion.

About The Author

Photograph by Albert Isaac

Janis Owens is the author of three previous novels and a regional cookbook. The only daughter of a Pentecostal preacher turned insurance salesman, she inherited her love of storytelling from her parents. She lives in Newberry, Florida.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 12, 2013)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451674651

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Raves and Reviews

"Part-thriller, part romance, and based on an actual event in the author's hometown, this wrenching novel is a fine example of southern storytelling."

– People Magazine

"Owens brings the vibrancy of a small Southern community to bear on a gothic tale."

– The New York Times

"A taut yarn about breaking silence."
--Good Housekeeping

“Owens weaves complex narrative strands together in a captivating story abundant with historical context and characterizations that reflect the foibles of human nature.”

– Shelf Awareness

"The past haunts the present in this engaging... offering inspired by actual events."

“A skillfully written, well-researched book…Owens brings a dark period of history to light in a book about Southern Allegiances, racial tensions and shameful acts.”

Owens’ voice [is] so authentic and her characters [are] so alive. Their motivations, reactions and dialogue feel so true, they could-almost be real.”

"Owens’ detailed and well-researched portrait of west Florida bloodlines benefits from her obvious affection for its cast of colorful characters, and her descriptions of small-town life are a joy to read."

– Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A taut literary thriller, as well as a wrenching meditation on the consequences of denying a dangerous past."

– Texas Observer

"This compelling novel begins as a love story...but it turns into a thrilling, multilayered mystery and a fearless look at the tragic delusions of American racism."

– San Antonio Express

"American Ghost is equal parts mystery and thriller. While the novel is rooted in a real-life incident,it remains a pure work of fiction in the best sense: a rich portrayal of a small town where the lines between black and white become blurred. Despite its dark subject matter, the novel is infused with light and hope—no small feat,given that [it] gracefully weaves everything from anti-Semitism and hate crimes to first love and family loyalties into the story. American Ghost is sure to resonate with readers long after its stunning final pages."

– Bookpage

"American Ghost is part mystery, part history, part anthropology — and all great Southern fiction."

– National Public Radio

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