Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dinner at the Dixie Belle Cafe: Caleb's Wars by David L. Dudley

"What's goin' on down there--a Klan meeting?" Nathan pointed toward the corner of Main Street and Pine, just where we were headed.

Henry grabbed my arm. "It ain't really the Klan, is it, Caleb?"

As we walked toward the corner, picking our way around pools of rusty red water, I realized what was going on. Davisville's new restaurant, the Dixie Belle Cafe', was opening today, and folks were waiting to go inside for dinner. By the door stood a girl wearing a fancy old-fashioned dress with a frilly big skirt, holding a basket on her other arm. People were reaching into it for slips of paper.

"She some pretty," Henry declared.

Nathan swatted the bill of Henry's cap. "Ain't your daddy taught you nothin'? Black man look at a white woman the wrong way--pow! He gone."

On the other side of the cafe's window stood tables covered in green and white checked cloths, with shiny chrome chairs around them. The table was set for dinner--silverware, napkins, even a vase of flowers.

In David L. Dudley's forthcoming novel of the Jim Crow South, Caleb's Wars (Clarion, 2011), the Dixie Belle is both the setting, the battlefield, and the symbol of life in Davisville, Georgia, in 1944.

Caleb is a kid at war with almost everything in his world of Toad Hop, Georgia. Caleb's brother Randall is in the Army, where he has enlisted to get away from his heavy-handed father, leaving Caleb to fight the same war alone. When his father whips him for defending himself against local white bullies, the injustice of it compels Caleb to a small rebellion. Refusing to work in his dad's carpentry business, Caleb begs a job working at the Dixie Belle for ten cents an hour from the owner, Mr. Lee Davis. Mr. Lee's long-time servants, Aunt Lou and Uncle Hiram, are running the place, and Aunt Lou speaks her mind to Mr. Lee, knowing that he can't manage the cafe' without her cooking, but although she is kind to Caleb, her boss, his draft-dodging son Stewart, and waitress Voncille make the job hard to bear.

Then a group of German prisoners of war are assigned to a camp just outside town, detailed to work on local farms and construction projects, and Davis has one, Andreas, assigned to work with Caleb at the Dixie Belle. Caleb is initially horrified at working with a Nazi soldier, but Andreas is humble and eager to befriend him, taking as much of the work load off Caleb as he can. And when Randall himself is severely wounded and sent to a German prison camp, Caleb feels a bond between himself and Andreas beginning to develop. But then Caleb is abruptly fired from the Dixie Belle for being too friendly with the German prisoner with whom he is made to work.

The next day Caleb looks through that window at the Dixie Belle and sees that Andreas and his fellow prisoners are being served a meal inside, and something snaps within him.

"I couldn't stop staring. At the back of the dining room were the German prisoners, enjoying their dinners. Among them sat Andreas, talking and laughing just like all the rest.

How could I make Nathan and Henry understand? Somewhere thousands of miles away, Randall was in a prison camp, one hand blown off and one eye gone. If he was still alive, he sure as hell wasn't eating a fried chicken dinner in a German restaurant with the local folks.

Ssuddenly I understood that I already knew what to do.

I pushed the door open and made myself walk through it. Right in front of me was an empty table.

"I'd like a fried chicken dinner and a cup of coffee," I said.

Caleb's war within himself is over, but from the vantage point of 60 plus years later, the reader knows that there are many more battles ahead for the real Calebs of his era. The end of the war might have been near, but with Black soldiers coming home to a still segregated America, we know that the beginning of the civil rights movement lies less than a decade in the future. David Dudley's novel of the wartime South pulls no punches in its depictions of the inequities of the time. Caleb is a flawed hero, a typical fifteen-year-old trying to work out his place in a flawed world, in common with the other characters portrayed empathetically but honestly. Caleb's Wars offers thoughtful teen readers an insight into Caleb's coming of age at a time when the nation itself was about to meet its next challenge.

"Provocative and interesting," says Kirkus Reviews.

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