Wednesday, January 18, 2017

FRESHWATER ROAD by Denise Nicholas



Denise Nicholas, Freshwater Road (Chicago: Agate Publishing, 2005).


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.

 

 

Historical Fiction

 

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.
            Pinneyville, 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 friends alike.
            Will anyone 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?
            I don’t 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.”
            Nicholas 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. I  wondered 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.



NOTE:
There is a brief interview with the author at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4953830.