Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alabama in 1955-Separate is not equal

The $66 Summer
John Armistead
(2000)

This one caught my eye while hanging around the YA section of the public library.  It was propped up with a bunch of other books for February's Black History Month. While I don't agree with a one month celebration of our combined history the book appealed to me.   I read the first chapter and thought maybe it was going to be a tough read- George's father is  a mean, drunk, racist!  I got all that from the first chapter when he wakes George up to go fishing.  They stop outside of town at a diner and their waitress acts "uppity," which causes a problem for the rest of the fishing adventure.  What I loved is that, even though George's dad points out the behaviour, George just doesn't see it or get what his father's so worked up about!  George's blind eye made the book worth reading. 

Their fishing boat overturns and once home George's mom argues with his dad and then calls her mom to complain wickedly about her husband's repeated drunkeness.  Mom bans Dad from ever taking George fishing again and Grandma shows up to support her daughter during this small crisis.  Fortunately Grandma decides to take George home with her for the summer.  She promises to pay him to work in her grocery store and he can hang out with two old friends in his spare time.  Esther and Bennett are Elizabeth's children and Elizabeth helps Grandma in the store/cafe and lives in an old cabin close by.  Elizabeth and Ms. Tilly (grandma) have been friends for years. The close relationship between Elizabeth and Ms. Tilly is exactly why George didn't get his father's earlier racial frustration.  George obviously takes after his grandmother. 

George, Esther and Bennett have fun exploring and working through the summer yet there is tone of anger and despair as they each deal with personal demons.  Esther has graduated from the 8th grade and she needs to make money for room and board if she wants to attend the black high school several towns away.  George has his father to worry about and Bennett is in a constant state of worry, working for Mr. Vorhise, another mean man who raises dogs for fighting.  Elizabeth's husband, Staple, disappeared 4 years ago and they still can't solve the mystery of his unexpected absense.  The book takes some unbelievable twists and turns, some of which I never, ever expected! 
My favorite quote from the book: 
Esther talked about little else but going back to the pines at Mr. Vorhise's pond and finding the bank robbers' money.  She wanted to know how much money they'd taken, so she went to the colored folks' library-a small, one-room brick building in town beside the colored cafe-to search back through old newspapers to find information on the robberies.  The library had newspapers dating back only to 1945.
She had  me go to the white library to see what I could find.  The librarian told me the old library burned down in 1926, and all the books and newspapers were destroyed.  Besides, she said, the Pontola County Times didn't start up until the beginning of WWII. p. 109

I love any reference to libraries while I'm reading but this one struck me because of the difference between the two libraries: not in the description but in the detail. There is a fullness to the history of the white library and the black library, in contrast, is so much less-only a one-room small brick building.   George has a librarian to discuss things with  and Esther only has a small building with no newspapers before 1945.
John Armistead's story from the back of the book is interesting as well.  He is a former pastor, teacher and was the religion editor of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.  He lives in Tupelo, MS and has a second book, Return of Gabriel, which follows Esther through the Civil Rights era.  I want to read this one as well.  I like how he showed this era-complete with the awful truth of injustice - with courtesy, grace and friendship.
Highly Recommended
middle grade-YA fiction
5/5 peaceful stars

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