Until I read The Lions of Little Rock (Penguin, 2012) by Kristin Levine and found these similarities:
- A friendship between a white girl and a black girl in a time and place when it was unacceptable.
- A story that takes place on the eve of civil rights.
- A story in which the black girl is light-skinned and passes.
- A story of courage and change.
The year afterwards, both black and white schools were closed as Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus attempted to prevent integration. The Lions of Little Rock is a fictionalized account of that year.
Here are some scenes I particularly appreciated.
Marlee, a quiet girl who loves math and has a hard time speaking to anyone besides her family, becomes friends with Liz. Her new friend is light-skinned and Marlee doesn't realize she's a Negro until Liz doesn't come to school one day and the other students reveal her race.
After school, Marlee asks Betty Jean, their cook:
"Have you ever heard of a light-skinned Negro pretending to be white?"For the first time, Marlee begins to see the hatred and prejudice in her city. Marlee's sister, who has been out of school for a month because her school can't open, gets sent away to live with their Grandmother. At a time when she's just beginning to speak what's on her mind, Marlee feels abandoned by her sister and Liz. When her father is angered that the town votes against integration he says, "We are not just a town of racists, but those of us who believe in integration..." He shook his head. "We can't seem to find our voice." (p. 75)
Betty Jean stopped what she was doing, her hands full of chicken guts, and gave me a funny look. "Why are you asking that, Marlee?"
The kids at schools said...this girl I know... I was just wondering...I couldn't get any words to come. Finally, I just stood there, helpless, praying Betty Jean would understand.
I guess she did, because she finally pushed the basting pan aside and went to the sink to wash her hands. She cut two pieces of blueberry pie, then sat down at the table. I sat down too, and she pushed the pie across the table to me.
"It's called passing," she said. "Some Negroes who are really light-skinned and have straight hair try it."
"Why?" I asked.
"Better schooling. More opportunities." She shrugged. "Maybe they're just tired of being seen as second best."
I didn't say anything. It suddenly seemed like there was more gray around her temples than had been there just a moment before.
"It's a hard life," Betty Jean went on. "You have to give up seeing family and friends. Stop going the places you used to go. And you have to lie--every day--to everyone you meet."
Like Liz had done to me.
"Lying like that, well, it's exhausting. I hope you never have a secret like that Marlee. A secret so big, your whole life depends on it." (p. 68)
Despite their parents' warnings for them not to see each other, the girls find secret meeting places. Marlee initiates these meetings because of her genuine affection for Liz and the reader senses that in the process, Marlee is learning, growing, and gaining her voice.
When Liz can't meet her one day because she has to take her little brother to the movies, Marlee has to make a choice.
I knew the Gem was over on West Ninth Street. If I could go to a Negro church, why not a Negro movie theater? I turned the idea over and over in my mind, like a lemon drop on my tongue. I imagined being the only white girl in a room full of Negroes and shivered. It was a little scary. But Liz had been the only colored girl in a whole school full of white kids. Negroes might not be welcome at the white theater, but I didn't think there was a rule against whites going to the Negro theater. If she could do it, so could I. (p. 106)As Marlee grows in empathy for Liz, she also realizes she's changing. "For so long I'd been the quiet girl. If I wasn't her anymore, who was I?" (p. 113) Marlee also begins to see that what has worked for her (doing math problems in her head when she's upset) isn't going to work for Liz who loves words more than numbers. A part of Marlee's growth is helping Liz figure out a way to control her temper by writing things down. Seeing how her friend is different than her, takes Marlee beyond their racial differences.
When of my favorite parts is close to the end of the book. The school board members which blocked integration were voted off the board, paving the way for new members and school integration. But Marlee is still upset at school the next day. This is a scene with her Algebra teacher, Mr. Harding. (Who by the way, is an important secondary character.)
"I'm happy we won," I said. "So how come I don't feel better?"
He looked thoughtful and said nothing for a long moment, then he pulled out a pencil and started to write on the blank piece of paper I had before me. "I think what's happened, Marlee, is that you've realized the world isn't an addition problem."
He wrote 3 + 4 = 7 down on the paper. "We tell kids that sometimes. We pretend the world is straightforward, simple, easy. You do this, you get that. You're a good person and try your best, and nothing bad will happen."
"But the truth is, the world is much more like an algebraic equation. With variables and changes, complicated and messy. Sometimes there's more than one answer, and sometimes there is none. Sometimes we don't even know how to solve the problem." (p.270)I wish I could say that the book ends with a beautiful tying-up-all-the-pieces between Marlee and Liz. But because of circumstances beyond their control, it doesn't. Like Mr. Harding's lesson, books don't always come out the way we want them to. But it is a realistic, hopeful ending that shows how much Marlee has grown. And there is hope for the future--which is vital when writing a book for young people.
Although the two main characters are girls, boys play significant roles in the book. I hope that teachers in upper elementary and middle school use The Lions of Little Rock when they teach civil rights; it will make this time period come alive.