Children’s fiction surprising me with American history, once again.

Crow, by Barbara Wright (2012)

It’s hard to know where to start with this book. Initially, as I was reading, I was coming up with a list of complaints I had that I would share with you in this post, but by the end… most of them seemed kind of petty. The last 90 pages of Crow are extremely powerful, and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed as I write this. So to have a chance to organize my thoughts, let’s start this off with a summary, shall we?

It’s 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Moses Thomas is a smart 11-year old boy living with his mother, Sadie, who is a housemaid in the home of a rich white family (a la The Help), his father, Jackson, newspaper man at the only black daily in the state and one of 10 town aldermen, and his grandmother, Boo Nanney, a former slave who freely shares her wisdom and folk remedies with all who care to listen. Moses’ father is a big proponent of education, giving Moses “challenge words” to research in the dictionary (great language arts tie-in!) and assuring him that with hard work and commitment, Moses can achieve anything.

But as elections for the state and federal government approach, things start to heat up in Wilmington. In the years since the Civil War, Wilmington, the largest city in North Carolina, had become a black-majority community with a rising middle class and a biracial local government (as represented by fictional Jackson Thomas). The state had even elected four black Congressmen to represent them in Washington (incidentally, another African American from North Carolina was not elected to U.S. Congress again until 1992). Because of this, Moses is seemingly unaware of the kind of racism possible, until a group of White Supremacists known as the Red Shirts arrive in town to keep blacks from voting. For days, Moses and his family and friends are kept in their homes for fear of leaving. Following the election, the fear and violence escalate, and even though the Red Shirts were successful at securing an all-white representation for the state and nation, they now demand an all-white local government as well (despite the municipal elections being slated for the following year). What unfolds is bloody chaos as the Red Shirts take over and the black families struggle for safety.

According to Wright’s historical note at the end of her book and the little research I did after finishing reading, the events depicted in Crow are pretty accurate to what happened in Wilmington on the day that is now called “The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.” Although Moses and his family are fictional, most everything else is a result of careful research. Once again (like with Fever 1793) I found myself incredibly surprised by this event in our country’s history that I had heard nothing of before, an event that was pretty crucial to the shaping of race relations in the south for most of the 20th Century. Had this coup d’etat never happened, things may have progressed in North Carolina (and the rest of the south) in the way it seemed to be shaping–with more African Americans in leadership and government positions, with a growing middle class, and with Jim Crow laws being forgotten. But instead we had a century of oppression for those who weren’t white and equality still hasn’t been fully realized.

Moses’s naive view of the world made this book a great one for those just learning about race relations in the south, I’m thinking especially for communities that are fairly homogenous and may not know racism as well as others. With Moses, the reader’s eyes are slowly opened to the injustices that have accompanied having darker skin in America.

I loved the characters Wright gradually developed, particularly Boo Nanney, Moses’s father, and Tommy, a white kid Moses befriends. This is where Wright shines.

But it’s certainly not a perfect book, so finally, back to my complaints (although they are somewhat minor in retrospect): For the first 150 pages of this book, there is no plot. It kind of reminds me of Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, in this way, with the many chapters of plateau to a sudden climax and conclusion. But at least with Watsons, each chapter has a story of its own. In Crow, the chapters seemed to be marked somewhat haphazardly. Hit 25 pages, and we’ll throw in a new chapter heading. And they draaaaggg on. I think it would take a persistent kid to commit to this book. That being said, I think it would work great as a book read with a class, either as part of a small group reading circle or as a full class. One thing to watch out for: the n-word is used pretty heavily in the second half of the book and the violence is pretty graphic. Keep an eye out for anxious parents. And when they do come, explain to them the incredibly valuable contributions this book has to make.

2 stars

(PS: This marks my second debut for the Debut Challenge! Note: Wright is not a brand new author, but her first two books Easy Money and Plain Language are for adult audiences.)

 

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A connection deeper than most

The Girls, by Lori Lansens (2005)

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved.

And so begins the fictional autobiography of Rose and Ruby Darlen, the oldest living pair of conjoined craniopagus twins. For those of you who don’t obsessively watch late night TLC or haven’t flipped the pages of your medical dictionary in a while, that means they were born joined at the head. Two bodies, two brains, two very different personalities, but one fused skull. At age 29, Rose decides to start writing her autobiography, which her sister Ruby says isn’t fair, since Rose’s life story is essentially Ruby’s as well. Thus, the girls alternate chapters, a technique that paints a delightfully interesting picture of the differences in life experience despite their closeness.

The sisters have very different writing styles (an authorial skill I so deeply admire and is reminiscent of The Poisonwood Bible), with Rose often writing her portions as a storyteller, including historical background, emotional connections, and layered parallels, and Ruby writing as she would speak, telling her day-to-day accounts and responding to much of what she assumes Rose is writing. Both include much about their adoptive parents, Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, with whom although they share no blood ties, shared a deep affection.

Never self-pitying and continually surprising, this fresh story of two girls in a life that most of us have never even considered won my heart almost immediately.

2.5 stars