Sunday, April 1, 2012

The next year

What happens after something momentous is usually not the stuff of story. Public interest dissipates and the people to whom that momentous thing happened are left to pick up and go on, out of the glare of television lights and political grandstanding. The events of 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas (illustrated, most famously perhaps, below) are over in Kristin Levine's The Lions of Little Rock. Not only have the television cameras gone, but so has the National Guard. The community, battered and bruised, is left to carry on. In a moment of particular enlightenment, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided that rather than integrate, he would deprive all children of Little Rock an education. In the fall of 1958, he closed all the public high schools.

Among the families left to figure out what to do with their teenage daughter are the Nisbets. The youngest daughter, Marlee, is only in junior high, but she's got problems of her own. She finds it very difficult to speak with all but a few close friends and family and she's not looking forward to another year of having to explain herself, so to speak. On the first day of school, a new girl comes to Marlee in the cafeteria and Marlee, to her surprise, asks her to sit down. Liz slowly brings Marlee out of her shell, teaching her some ways to overcome her fear of speaking. The two girls plan an oral presentation on Arkansas history, but when the day comes, Marlee learns that Liz won't be attending West Side Junior High any more.

Summoning all her courage, Marlee makes the presentation on her own. Later she learns that Liz was ejected from school because she is black. (I think I'm remembering the chronology correctly.) The Nisbet's Negro maid, Betty Jean, explains to Marlee how that works. At first Marlee is shocked, but she comes to realize that Liz was a true friend and she uses all her courage to try and maintain that friendship. She learns about integration and joins forces with adults -- black and white -- working to re-open the Little Rock schools. It's a book for kids, so yeah, Marlee learns a great deal about herself in the process, ultimately finding the strength to speak for herself.

Levine successfully walks a fine line here (something I didn't think she did in her previous book) of telling the story of a white heroine who doesn't fix things for the black people around her. Yes, she saves Liz and herself and a black family from a bomb tossed into their living room, but mostly this book is about how white Arkansans stood up against the supporters of segregation for their own benefit. At the end of this novel, the schools are open again but there still aren't any black kids going to Marlee's junior high.

I enjoyed this for what it is -- a sparkling piece of historical fiction with an appealing young girl at its center. Levine weaves the larger picture of history nicely into Marlee's story, and I learned a whole lot (something I like to do when I read this genre) about what happened after the larger events of 1957. It got perilously close to jumping the shark when Marlee finds herself locked in the trunk of a nasty older boy's car, but it recovered. This is no doubt because the core of the novel is not its events, but that journey that Marlee takes from one with no voice to one who learns how loud her voice can be. (How curious that the next book I listened to is also one about a young girl's voice [and can I say how little that website reflects the contents of that book!].)

Julia Whelan narrates the story. I've only heard her read once before, and I liked her. She reads Marlee with a quiet intelligence that is just right for the character. When Marlee recites prime numbers (her technique for building the courage to speak), I can hear a little edge of panic in Whelan's voice. She reads Liz with a little more intensity that provides a good contrast with Marlee.

Whelan runs into a little trouble as the cast of characters widened. Some of them had Southern accents (I tried to keep Bill Clinton in my head for comparison purposes), but these came and went: They mostly arrived in characters under stress and then they went away again. Neither Marlee nor Liz spoke with a drawl, yet their parents did. Now that I'm not an award-giving superlistener, this really didn't bother me, yet it kept coming across my consciousness while listening.

The title of this novel refers metaphorically (I'm pretty darn sure) to Marlee and Liz. The Zoo is also where Liz has Marlee practice her Arkansas history presentation to its various denizens. Unfortunately, I usually had a picture in my head of some ghastly 1950s zoo -- with the titular lions pacing back and forth in some cement, barred box -- during these sections. I hope young readers/listeners have better images in their heads.

[The photograph of Elizabeth Eckford bravely walking into Central High School in September 1957 was taken by Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was retrieved from the National Park Service. Hazel Bryan is the as-famous white girl behind Elizabeth. A cautionary tale for all those seeking their 15 minutes. They might last longer than you like.]

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
Narrated by Julia Whelan
Listening Library, 2012. 8:22

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