Friday, January 13, 2006

Book review: Freshwater Road

Freshwater Road is the story of Celeste Tyree, a young African-American woman from Detroit, who goes to Mississippi in 1964 as a Freedom Summer volunteer. Denise Nichols draws on her own experiences from that summer as she tells of Celeste’s work in Pineyville, a small town where blacks live in homes without indoor plumbing and step off the sidewalks to let whites pass. Celeste spends the divides her days during the hot, humid summer, teaching children about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in Freedom School in the mornings, and adults how to read and interpret the Mississippi Constitution in voter education classes in the evenings. She sees the church where she teaches burned to the ground and a little girl she loves die. She struggles with her motivations for volunteering, her questions about her family, learns to appreciate the community than is learning to accept her.

Several of the chapters take the reader back to Detroit, following the experience of Shuck, Celeste’s father, as he struggles with the knowledge of the danger his daughter could be in and his lack of knowledge of what’s really happening to her. While Shuck’s chapters aren’t as captivating as Celeste’s story, they don’t take away from the book. Instead, they give depth to Celeste’s story—showing her background, so different from what she experiences in Mississippi—and offer a larger picture of race relations in the country in 1964. The joy of three blacks who finally register to vote in Pineyville contrasts sharply with the decline Shuck observes in the black neighborhoods in Detroit.

Both Celeste and Shuck have incredible depth, as do several of the other characters. Nichols’ Celeste becomes a real person very quickly, from her first questions about why she decided to go to Mississippi and her struggles with how to relate to white volunteers, to considering whether she can remain engaged in non-violence and learning how to relate to the blacks she is helping prepare to register to vote. The black minister, who helps Celeste lead the movement in Pineyville, has chosen to take on the white establishment, but he treads carefully when it comes to issues within his church. Mrs. Owens, who provides room and board to Celeste, is a wonderful character, and it is interesting to observe how her relationship with Celeste transforms. While the Freedom School students are mostly minor characters in the story, they are artfully drawn, as are several of the Pineyville citizens who fight to register to vote.

Only one character did not ring true. While there are other Pineyville blacks that do not participate in Celeste’s Freedom School activities, Nichols chooses to highlight one character who responds with hatred toward Celeste and refuses to let his daughter attend Freedom School. While the character, Mr. Tucker, could be created with sympathy (even while remaining something of a bully) and seem realistic as someone who feared the danger that the movement could bring to the little town, Nichols casts Mr. Tucker in an almost consistently negatively light. He does act as a protective figure to several single black women neighbors, but portraying him as a potential child molester takes something away from his character, making him seem flat.

One of the most important elements of the book for me was reading about the Celeste’s motivation. In everything I’ve learned about the Civil Rights movement and Freedom Summer, I’ve been amazed by the strength of the volunteers. I imagined their pure motives, their desire to see justice in the South, their bravery. And so as I read the first pages of the book, I was surprised to see Celeste’s ambivalence and fear. I was interested to see her questioning her own motives. I had idealized the volunteers, and in the first chapter of the book I was drawn in to the reality of the experience, which only made my admiration for them stronger.

There are images in our culture of the Civil Rights movement—young men sitting at a lunch counter, Rosa Parks arrested on the bus, marchers knocked over by fire hoses. Freshwater Road gives readers a deeper look that goes beyond those images, to the small town where the struggle wasn’t captured by the media. The movement brought changes on a grand scale, but Nichols lets us see that it was made up of individual volunteers who were afraid and brave, of three people who registered to vote, and of little girls drawing pictures of Frederick Douglass and the North Star.

2 comments:

ann said...

Remember when I said you should be a travel writer? Well, maybe you should be a travel write who also reviews books...

Elizabeth said...

Flattery will get you everywhere....