civil rights fiction
January 20, 2004 02:19 PM

I've just finished Sena Jeter Naslund's Four Spirits, which seems oddly appropriate the day after MLK Day.

So, the jist of the novel is this: it's the stories of several different people woven around civil rights goings-on in Birmingham in the mid-sixties. It starts after the first efforts at school integration and ends (minus epilogue) before any real resolution or federal involvement. I don't typically read historical fiction that isn't essentially historical science fiction (i.e. the story is in the past, but something wildly different happens), but I read everything Naslund publishes. She's that good.

Reading historical fiction centered around a time and place you know a little, not much, about is unusual. Everything seems factual. I wonder if it's different to read about a time you lived through in a fictionalized way, too; I want to pass this book on to older southern friends and know what it means to them.

One of the characters in the book is the battered wife of a Klan bomb-setter; their whole story terrifies me in an odd, back-burner of your mind sort of way. I kept wanting to push that part of the book away from me. And it's a side note of a story, too. It was no more graphic than, say, a Steven King novel (which, if you don't read them, are generally not graphic and more about tension than violence) - but it was so upsetting. Like the rest of the book, it felt like someone's true story, but that wasn't even the thing that made it so disconcerting. It just. Was.

But I meant to talk about this book, and how it worked more through poetry than a history lesson might have. You think, you learn in school, that the big heroes of the civil rights era died for a cause, but you don't think about the people who weren't leaders. Teachers and shoe-shiners and waitresses who were also activists.

And it's sad how much we still haven't achieved.

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