Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Completed: Four Spirits

Dear Jenny,

This book was my "8.12" -- I  was burning through books last month, so I didn't take time to write my introductory post, which would have said:

This book was  given to me several years ago by my mother-in-law, who heard the author speak at some sort of "Meet the Author" lecture series. It says "To Kelly" inside and is signed, which is kind of neat. Other than that, I know nothing about it.

So it's a book I knew absolutely nothing about, given to me by a reader whose opinion I respect. And now I'm done with it, so here's my review/re-cap/whatever these jottings are...

I enjoyed this book, but I think it could have lost about 1/3 of the story and have been a better book, which is something I rarely think about when reading -- I generally trust authors and editors to their work, but this book had me paying a lot of attention to the form.

Set in 1963 in Birmingham, AL, this book is about what you would expect it to be about for that time and that place: civil rights, racism, peaceful protests, violent backlashes, the personal stories of people figuring out how to make it all work. It interweaves the stories of several different characters, both black and white, and it hits the mark beautifully sometimes, but other times are a giant miss.

The best story, by far, was about a white girl (Woman? She's in her early 20s. I guess she starts out as a "girl" and ends up as a "woman" by the end of the book) (Ooh! Go me with the insight!) who goes with her friend out to a school to teach adult (well, post high-school -- late teens, early 20s) black students to get their GEDs. The relationships that develop between her and the students, the other teachers, all of the people in her life -- this story was rich and moving. She takes a journey and I found myself drawn into her story more than any other in the novel.

As it turns out, that character is modeled directly on the author's own experiences. Of course -- that is why they were the most vivid! It was she who had taken the teaching position with her friend, had gone out to the school, had weathered the bomb threats, had experienced the emotional hardships and triumphs, and had forged the unexpected friendships. Honestly, I think she could have just written her own story and had a fine piece of writing. But she had to add more.

The other characters are what you would expect: blacks and whites on either side of the segregation fence, some of them desiring change and some of them clinging to their beliefs. There was this one asshole that ends up getting killed by his wife (he's a real peach -- white supremacist, abusive spouse, rapist, etc. etc) and, while her revenge is satisfying and I was glad that this MF'er got what he deserved, I just thought, "What did that really add to the plot?" It just seemed like low-hanging fruit -- the story of the asshole klansman is the obvious one. I preferred the more nuanced stories in the book: more conflict, more revelation, some kind of growth. His story also ends a little mysteriously -- his wife blew up their house with him in it and there is some allusion that she saw their son running back into the house right before the blast! But that is never confirmed or denied. Ugh! Cliffhanger! Again, I find myself thinking: What exactly did that add to this story?

Other than the author's character, the other strong character in the book was a black woman who also taught at the school. In some ways, she was well-drawn (perhaps based on someone the author actually knew) -- she was reluctant to get to know this white woman, but they came together in the end, united against something bigger than the two of them, as they held hands together in a lunch counter sit-in that starts peacefully and ends in bloodshed. But in other ways, her story really lacked. Perhaps in comparison to the richness of the author's own story? Maybe because we can never truly know what another person in a totally different set of circumstances goes through?  I guess it's the job of a good fiction writer to be able to put themselves inside of the character, but perhaps this story was too close to home for this author. And, sometimes, authors just fall flat -- for instance, I can think of several horribly drawn female characters written by men.

The "Four Spirits" were a strange plot device -- these were the spirits of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and they appeared to an old black lady who lived in a cabin in the woods. We see her at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book and her life is connected to a white man that she was a nanny to when he was a boy. Later in the novel, I think his daughter becomes one of the supporting characters that interacts with the main ones. I say "think" because there were a lot of characters in this book and it was hard to keep them all straight. In fact, the more I think about this book, the more I find myself thinking, "Oh, yeah -- that guy! Oh, yeah -- that woman!" And then, "What the heck happened to them...?" which isn't great. I would have liked to have all of these different characters "come together" more. And, if that's not possible, let's just eliminate them.

I understand the reference to the bombing -- the book contained many historical facts (the murders of both MLK Jr. and JFK are covered, as well as the story of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth) -- but bringing ghosts in was just a little weird and felt like it was the original seed for the story that probably should have gotten tossed when it was outgrown.

I think if the author had pared this story down to the two main women in the book, she probably could have addressed the other  character's stories peripherally, without actually "seeing" things their eyes. And the story could have been a lot stronger.

One interesting note -- when the author originally goes to teach out at the school, she goes with a childhood friend. This friend was wheelchair bound and went on to become an advocate for people with disabilities in real life. I thought this part was especially poignant, as it is her indignation at racial prejudices that leads her to realize: "Hey! Why am I, a disabled person, not allowed the same rights as able-bodied people?" Oh, yeah -- we all deserve equal treatment! (Goooooo, Civil Rights!)

I feel like all I've done is bag on this book, but some of the stories really were moving. In a nutshell: It was a good, quick read that tells about a tumultuous time in our country's history through personal stories, but I think it could have been even better with a little more focus on fewer characters.


1 comment:

  1. K,

    I feel like the Civil Rights literature, like any novelizations of particularly difficult times in history, have the potential to "go wrong." I think it's normal to want to set stories is such tumultuous times, but then the bar is so much higer because of the pressure to be respectful to all the parties, etc.

    Sounds like an okay book, though. Although I agree that the four spirits thing just sounds a little goofy. That would have bothered me, too!