by Ruth Vander Zee, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. James Williams is a white boy who lives in Mississippi in the 30’s. He is proud to be able to help his family out by doing all the farm chores while his father runs the store in town. His life is idyllic until he starts to hear about the Klan. He has two friends that he hunts and fishes with from time to time. Red is a white boy who first tells him that the “colored preacher who lives way out of town got what was coming to him” when his house was burned down. James Williams doesn’t believe at first that anyone would do such a thing on purpose. Then he learns from his black friend LeRoy about the Klan riding around in white hoods tarring and hanging black men. He asks his father about it but gets no answer. It makes no sense to him that some folks would hate others and treat them so bad. He accepts that black can’t eat or drink from the same places as whites and must wait for permission to be served or sit in the balcony of the theater. That is “just the way things are” to him. But he can’t imagine any of his father’s friends wearing a pointed hood or burning somebody’s home.
Finally one morning he wakes very early and does the milking before dawn. He sees a white hooded figure coming down the road and is shocked when the man turns into his driveway. The hood slips off and he sees it is his own father. “He never spoke to me about that morning. I never asked. I couldn’t find the words. After that, I still went to the store. I didn’t want to but I did it… I still loved my pa. But I never really looked into his eyes again. And he never really looked into mine.”
Most of the book leads up to this startling realization as James Williams learns of the existence of the Klan and the hatred that grows just under the surface of his small town home. This is a story of lost innocence and learned accommodation of evil. I am disappointed by the ending, because we are left with only the boys discomfort and dismay over his father’s actions. James Williams’ only response to the evil he finds in his town and his family is silence and avoidance. What happens next? They just never talked about it? What kind of man did James Williams grow up to be? It does say he “still hung around with Red and fished occasionally with LeRoy, but somehow everything was different.” That is not enough for me. I want to know how he chose to live his life in that town or what he did to challenge that racism. Perhaps the books’ ending is a more realistic portrayal of how it is or was; perhaps that is the point. Reading this book with children aged nine and up could open some very good discussions of what a more appropriate or courageous response would be. Maybe it is too much to ask of children though, that they would see another way to respond to their parent’s hatred and violence.
I just hate that this is our history. I hate that some day I will have to read this book and many more like it to my boys. The only good is that at least we are at the point where there are these books for children. We do have more choices than silence and accommodation.
Technorati Tags: African American, history, Klan, kidlit, middle grades