Small Town Views 

Does a conservative federal judge's new romance novel, "Love at Deep Dusk," signal a change of heart?

Author J. Harvie Wilkinson III serves as a United States Circuit Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.

Author J. Harvie Wilkinson III serves as a United States Circuit Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.

Can a locally prominent and staunchly conservative federal appeals judge find love at age 77? Apparently so.

J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a judge on the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, has written his first novel, a romantic story about love, family, friendship, betrayal and forgiveness, while tipping a hat at LGBTQ+ couples.

“Love at Deep Dusk, A Pennsylvania Story” explores years in the life of Leah Richards, a bright woman who lives in the mythical small town of Woodson, Pa. She attends a local high school, ends up at Harvard and then loses several important people in her life including her father, her mother and her brother.

After attending law school in Pennsylvania, she must decide whether to stay in Woodson or move on to the brighter lights of Philadelphia. There, she strikes up a friendship with a Black woman who explains her perspective on being gay. As her friend tells her: “I don’t concede for a minute that so-called nice traditionalists have a point in having an opinion on our lives, because they don’t get the privilege of making a point if they haven’t lived through the bigotry.”

Wilkinson, the author of six non-fiction works on legal issues, is a good fiction writer. His prose is clear and simple and at times charming. It is full of humanity and compassion. It’s also a quick read.

But what makes the novel unique is that for years, Wilkinson espoused conservative and controversial views on such matters as affirmative action, prayer at public meetings, and whether gay marriage should be a right -- he argued that it should be a matter for the legislature, not a constitutional right.

He also drew fire when he said that historically Black colleges and universities benefit from racial discrimination, although they typically accept students from all races.

Asked about the matter in a recent interview and book review in The Washington Post, Wilkinson declined to talk about it. But he did say, “I do recognize that my perspective is limited, that I’ve got to grow, that I’ve got an identity with other situations with other people. There’s room for change, and room for reaching out. But I also know who I am.”

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Wilkinson has deep Richmond roots. He grew up in the city where his father was a prominent banker. He attended private St. Christopher’s school for a while and then a boarding prep school in New Jersey, followed by Yale and University of Virginia School of Law.

Something of a prodigy, he wrote his first book when he was 23 years old. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, another prominent Richmond lawyer known for his right-wing views as well as penning the Powell Memorandum, which has been described as a "call-to-arms for American corporations." Many believe it ushered in the era of big business, corporate rule.

A few years later, Wilkinson was the editorial page editor at The Virginian-Pilot. (Full disclosure: I also worked at the Pilot at the time and knew Wilkinson, although I generally did not agree with his views).

After that, he taught at the University of Virginia School of Law and was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District by President Ronald Reagan. At one point, he was considered as a possible U.S. Supreme Court Judge.

It is curious that someone with such a high-powered career can write with such understanding about small town life, where personal relationships evolve for years and problems endured can be emotionally overwhelming.

Such is the case with Leah, the protagonist in the novel. She adored her father and was devastated when he was killed in a car crash. Her brother, a star high school athlete, lost his leg in the Iraq War and later killed himself.

She ended up marrying her high school sweetheart and was enraged when she learned he had an extra-marital affair with her sister. It took years for Leah to forgive them but she did eventually.

The story lines fit together nicely but one criticism is that the dialogue is very goody-two-shoes. Are real people actually that polite? It might have helped if Wilkinson stuck in an F-bomb here or there, or even, like Stephen King, a ‘dirty birdy’ or two.

Despite the many tragedies it reveals, the novel is something of a breath of fresh air in these very troubled times of war, pandemics, inflation, mass shootings and political rage. It might even make a good beach read, that is as long as you can stomach the political beliefs of its creator - a big question on either side of the aisle these days.

Perhaps Judge Wilkinson has found a new career at a ripe old age. And if his new book is any indication, he may well be working on his own views as well.



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