Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Burg, Shana. A Thousand Never Evers (3 1/2 out of 4 stars).
There cannot be too many positive pre-adolescent and adolescent African-American role models in today’s libraries. Those who argue that the worst days of the civil rights struggle are over, that we have finally achieved personal, professional, and social equality, are not seeing the reality I see every day at school. Unfortunately, African-Americans have the additional challenge of having to be blitzed with media images too-frequently showing African-Americans as athletes and rappers, and too-infrequently showing African-Americans as doctors, accountants, chefs, and architects. With her first novel, A Thousand Never Evers, Shana Burg has created a fine civil rights-era historical novel, and in Addie Ann Pickett, Ms. Burg has given life to a new, strong voice young people can hear and relate to.
It is 1963 in segregated Kuckachoo, Mississippi, and as Addie Ann Pickett inches closer to the start of seventh grade at West Thunder Creek Junior High School (called County Colored by the older members of the community), her life is becoming increasingly complicated and uncomfortable. Addie Ann’s situation deteriorates rapidly when she gets picked on by two racist white teens, Buck Fowler and Jimmy Worth, for staring at and then laughing in the presence of Mrs. Worth, a prominent citizen and avowed segregationist: “‘Reckon coloreds don’t learn manners at school,’ Buck says, cackling. ‘Thing we ought to teach this one a lesson?’” (47). Addie Ann’s brother Elias throws a honey jar at Jimmy, who trips and falls. Elias runs away and, after a chase and search, is presumed dead. The next escalation of tensions for Addie Ann occurs when she realizes, in stages throughout the novel, that her friend Delilah has physically blossomed earlier than she has, and that Delilah will most probably catch the eye of the only neighborhood young man entering the seventh grade, Cool Breeze Huddleston: “After all, Delilah’s light brown skin’s always dewy like a petal, while mine’s muddy like the bottom of the bayou. And Delilah’s eyebrows? They arch real graceful, like dancers leaping, while . . . mine scraggle like hawks crashing down for a landing” (98). But the real problem that can potentially rive the town is a community garden that a recently-deceased wealthy man bequeaths to the whole town, black and white alike. The garden is predictably stolen the moment the attorney with the will leaves the room. Addie Ann watches the sheriff take out his gun and bully the room into submission: “I want to yell what I know is true: This land, it’s ours too! But the words are stuck inside me. I’m afraid we’re all going to die. And I wonder if it’s worth it, for the land” (22). When someone close to Addie Ann is falsely accused of sabotaging the garden, she must grow up quickly and find the inner fortitude to fight the mounting injustice in her family, her town, and her world.
I like Addie Ann Pickett. Her internal monologue sounds authentic, and it is fun to watch her grow up, even during the maelstrom of the early modern civil rights movement. Ms. Burg works in names like Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and the Birmingham Four to add appropriate tension to the story and its characters, and she successfully displays both the segregationists’ shame and the beginning of the overthrow of that sorry, racist cycle. One of the small ironies that so poignantly illustrates Addie Ann’s conflict as an African-American in the segregationist South occurs after she saves the choking toddler son of her white employer, Mrs. Tate. When Mrs. Tate asks Addie Ann privately where she learned to help choking children, Addie Ann becomes afraid that she did something wrong, that she embarrassed Mrs. Tate by showing her up in front of her friends. Sadly, in the white world in which Addie lives, saving face and looking good is even more important than saving lives. A Thousand Never Evers is a fine debut novel by Shana Burg that successfully illustrates the challenges we all still face if we want racism-free peace in our time.

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