The Webber Family Bookshelf is the blog of the Strange-Webber family, descendants of Dorinda Rebecca Strange and Myron David Webber. Shake the family tree and you will discover diversity in education, ethnicity, viewpoint and reading habits. Whatever family members are reading may be reviewed: fiction, history, theology, cookbooks, poetry, children’s books, etc. At least two reviews will be published each month. Reviews represent the viewpoint of the writers, not the family.
Published as a hardback, paperback, an audiobook
narrated by Patricia R. Floyd and another audiobook by Richard Poe. Also
available for Nook, Kindle and audible.
Reviewed by Wilda Morris
It is 1964
and Celeste Tyree, a University of Michigan sophomore, heads south to help
register residents of Mississippi to vote—without telling either of her parents
where she is going. It doesn’t take her long to realize she is not in Ann Arbor
anymore. During her training she is warned never to travel alone. If she is
in a car with a white person, and the car is pulled over, she is to let the
white person do all the talking. She is best off in the back seat, letting the
officer think she is the cook or housekeeper. Even before she is dropped off in
Pineyville where she will spend the summer, she has seen her first “Whites
Only” signs, read a mimeographed set of instructions of “How to Stay Alive in
Mississippi,” been reminded of the murder of Emmet Till, had negative
experiences with police and highway patrol, and has watched a car full of KKK
members drive by on their way to a big rally. Furthermore, a car containing
three Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney,
and Andrew Goodman—has gone missing. Proof, among other things, that there is
no safety in numbers. All of Mississippi is on edge.
a small community near Hattiesburg, is nothing like Ann Arbor. Indoor plumbing
is rare. There are no movie theaters, no bookstores or museums, no bar or soda
fountain that would serve her a cold drink when the heat is suffocating. Not
even a radio. In order to call her dad, the Freedom Summer headquarters or the
FBI, Celeste has to go to the pay phone on the main street. Mail delivery for
people on Freshwater Road is undependable.
Celeste stays out of town at the
home of Geneva Owens, a widow. She is instructed not to walk to town, but to
wait for the local black pastor to pick her up each day. His church will host her
Freedom School for children and invite adults to participate in a program to
educate them in the knowledge they will need if they are to pass the test to
become registered voters.
Back in Detroit,
Celeste’s father, Shuck, owns and runs a bar, dreams of his ex-wife (Celeste’s
mother, who is out west with another man, evidently trying not to look black),
and—once he knows where Celeste is—tries to keep it a secret from family and
let their children attend her Freedom School? Will she succeed in getting any
of Pineyville’s black residents registered to vote? Will there be retribution
against her, her hostess, or the church which provides her headquarters? In what
ways, if any, will Celeste be changed by her summer in Mississippi?
want to give away too much of this well-crafted story. Denise Nicholas has
developed sub-plots involving Celeste’s mother, relationships within and among
Pineyville families, Rev. Singleton, and two young men in the One Man, One Vote
movement. Nicholas has some surprises for the reader, places where you might
say, “I didn’t see that coming.”
integrates some actual history into the story. Having lived through the 1960s,
I knew about the murders of Emmet Till and of the three Freedom Summer volunteers.
Iwondered about the literal truth of
the kinds of questions Nicholas indicated sometimes showed up on poll tests,
and found out she had done her research well. She helps the reader understand
what it was like to live in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1970s, as well as the
sense of isolation and displacement felt by a college student from Detroit sent
to rural Mississippi.
The book is so well written, so
rich in insight, character, plot and description, that I was surprised to learn
that it is Nicholas’s first novel. Had it been a movie, I’m sure I would have
been biting my nails. I listened to the CDs in the car—and sometimes sat in the
driveway for a while, not wanting to turn it off. This is the best novel I have
read since Cutting for Stone by
Abraham Varghese. I highly recommend it.