Monday, October 27, 2008

Seven Laurels

There aren't too many novels which I can personally relate to. This will date me, but as I read Seven Laurels, which progressed from 1956 until 1994, I kept thinking, I was alive then.

But living in southern, suburban New Jersey is a universe removed from rural Alabama.

So although I can tell you exactly where I was in 5th grade when I heard the news that JFK was shot, my experience of life south of the Mason Dixon Line didn't begin until I moved to Charlotte, NC in 1986. Certainly I thought little about the southern African American experience while I attended high school and college. And my knowledge of Alabama didn't extend much beyond visits to Birmingham to see my in-laws and to present at the Mid-South Reading and Writing Institute. Seven Laurels, written by Linda Busby Parker, took care of those knowledge gaps.

Parker's award winning book was recommended by Doyle Boggs, Executive Director of Marketing & Communications at Wofford College and a South Carolina history aficionado. It eloquently tells the story of the life and struggles of Brewster McAtee, a talented carpenter who experiences the pains of prejudice and segregation. Parker told it like it was: showing the relationships between the whites and the blacks, the family conflicts that played out in their lives, and the joys of the accomplishments gleaned.

I often think that a well-written novel must have a great story and be written with beautiful, expressive language. Parker succeeds in doing both. I particularly enjoyed the way she wrote about Brewster's son Laurel's passionate piano playing. Laurel is an exceptional musician and in this passage, is competing in what will become a series of piano competitions:

"[Brewster] knew Laurel would be the only black student to perform. He wondered if this made his son nervous, to be the only black player in front of an all-white audience, if he carried the burden of his race as had Joe Lewis and Jackie Robinson, if he carried the burden into this new age in this new area, in front of black and white piano keys, at a white Methodist college in middle Alabama." I will remember the allegory of the white and black piano keys. This magnificent musical instrument needs both to produce the sonatas and jazz improvisations that Brewster's son loved. "Laurel took old pieces and made them new, adding his own syncopated rhythms, adding parts of his own self that came through his arms and down past his elbows to the tips of his fingers."

An adult novel, I would recommend this book for older, mature teenagers as an accurate historical picture of Alabama during the second half of the 20th century. Although there is no gratuitous sex in the book, there are several explicit scenes involving the main characters which parents may feel uncomfortable having their children read.

I appreciate Boggs recommending this book. As I proceed into writing my own historical fiction (to take place in Charlotte, 1950) this helps me to be informed about a time and a place that was far away from Cherry Hill, N.J.

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