Thursday, January 22, 2009

Let your garden grow

I loved the connection (very brief ... if you weren't paying close listening attention you might have missed it) between the title of this book and the civil rights martyr Medgar Evers. A Thousand Never Evers is shouted during a service for the murdered Evers and the thought of that (which meant "never again" to me) gave me shivers. It felt particularly appropriate during this historic Inauguration weekend. This first novel by Shana Burg, a Jewish woman who tells us that her father represented unjustly accused African Americans during the civil rights era, tells the story of young Addie Ann Pickett. Addie lives on the black side of the railroad tracks with her widowed mother, uncle and older brother in 1963. She's spunky, smart and -- while fully aware of the impact of segregation on herself and her family -- is just understanding what it means in the world of her small town, Kuckachoo, Mississippi and beyond.

That hot summer of 1963 begins with the murder of Medgar Evers, as well as the death of Kuckachoo's wealthiest citizen. When he dies, he leaves his large garden property to all the citizens of Kuckachoo, in the hopes that black and white will work together to plant the land and reap the produce. The white Kuckachoo-ians don't bat a collective eyelash in dismissing the will and go ahead with plans to plant the garden. They don't even see the irony of hiring black workers to do the stoop labor. However, when the time comes to harvest, everyone -- black and white -- discover that the garden has been vandalized; someone has tossed butter bean (are these lima beans?) seeds all over the land, and as they have grown, the other plants have withered. Someone must pay, and the white community believes it has found the culprit in Addie Ann's uncle Bump. In a scene right out of To Kill a Mockingbird, Bump faces an all-white jury who will decide his fate. As the plot unfolds, it is Addie Ann who holds the key to proving Bump's innocence.

Burg crams a lot into this story, fact and fiction -- including the March on Washington, Emmitt Till, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church -- and it sways a bit under the weight. There's almost too much in here, and when Addie Ann and another character present their evidence during the trial I heard the faint machinery of the plot. But this largely doesn't detract from its qualities as an audiobook. The reading aloud is quite powerful.

The audio starts with Burg reading her author's note, and she sounds ... well, like an author reading (er ... like most authors reading), so when narrator Kenya Brome starts speaking it's a delightful cue that the story is beginning. Brome infuses Addie Ann with optimism and wonder, as well as an undercurrent of bitter understanding. All the events of the story are filtered through her 12-year-old interpretation (in this way, the story felt like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), and she's working her way through fear, loss, horror, excitement, friendship, puppy love and curiosity about adult behavior. Her voice sounded so authentic; yes, as an African American, but also as a child.

Brome creates voices for many of the other characters in the story, and she did this skillfully and consistently. I enjoyed hearing the different Southern cadences of black and white, along with a slight New York Jew for the young woman who defends Uncle Bump on behalf of the NAACP. As she recorded dialogue, she moved effortlessly from one character to another. It was a fine performance, worthy of our notice.

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