A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

Alice Blackwell=Laura Bush=ME.

 American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

This book has been on my horizon for a while. Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, was one of my favorites in high school. I read through the first 40 pages  or so of American Wife while standing at the Nook desk at B&N last summer (instead of selling Nooks…), and while it wasn’t exactly thrilling, I felt like it was definitely something I wanted to pick up again in the future. I found a copy of it at one of the many booksales I scour, and put it on my shelf for a rainy day. It finally happened when I was scanning the audio book selection at the library to keep me entertained and awake while trying to drive 5 hours to Kirksville without cruise control last month. And entertained I was.

When I got home from the trip and flipped through the pages of the book to find my place, I was shocked to discover that I had only listened to about 150 pages. It felt like such a huge portion of the story had taken place already. I was thoroughly hooked in a way that felt like we were reaching a climax. And yet, it had barely begun.

For those of you who haven’t heard of this book or the controversy that goes along with it, let me explain. Baaaaasically, Sittenfeld presents a fictionalized biography of First Lady Laura Bush’s life, starting with her childhood and ending with Bush’s lame duck years circa 2006-07ish. Although the author claims that only about 15 percent of the text is biographical and that she knows nothing more of the Bush family than any other avid biography reader, it’s hard to separate reality from fiction in this text, and ultimately, I finished the book feeling like I knew the real Laura Bush, not just the fictional character Alice Blackwell. And it frightened me a little. Because I could 100 percent see myself in her.

Let’s start with the most obvious similarities. Alice/Laura is an avid reader, who often finds herself lost in stories in a real and meaningful way. Duh. Me too. Alice/Laura was an elementary school librarian before becoming a stay-at-home mom. I am studying to be an elementary school librarian and would love to stay at home at least while my children are little. Alice/Laura was extremely independent, living alone for more than a decade before marrying. I am a very independent person about to move into my own apartment and although I’m only 23, this later marriage age doesn’t seem unrealistic to me. Alice/Laura is a naturally-inclined liberal, although doesn’t care much for politics and thus prefers to listen rather than contribute to political conversation. Me to a tee. Besides these obvious similarities, however, are the more subtle things. Like the way Alice broaches confrontation (hesitantly and only when necessary), or her relatively high guilt complex. Or her constant inner monologue that is always questioning how others are feeling, reacting, understanding. Or how her quick fall into love with this boisterous, confident politician’s son seemed like something that could easily happen to me, however illogical it seems. Or how much she finds herself compromising for the sake of her relationship, believing that a life with him is the only thing better than a life without him.

Although I think Alice Blackwell (and probably Laura Bush) is more level-headed than I’ll ever be, time and time again while reading this story, I found myself thinking, THIS IS EXACTLY HOW I THINK AND ACT. I’M GONNA GROW UP TO BE LAURA BUSH.

So don’t be surprised when in 20-30 years you see me holding a bible, swearing in the President of the United States. Because I’m pretty sure that’s what’s gonna happen.

Elegantly written, and spurred on by the intrigue of the first lady’s behind-the-scenes life, this book captured me in a way that hasn’t been done in a while.

2.5 stars