Monday, December 31, 2012

Finding A Voice: The Lions of Little Rock by Kriistin Levine

I talk a lot. Just not out loud where anyone can hear. At least, I used to be that way. I guess I’ve learned it’s not enough to just think things. You have to say them, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand me, and how I’ve changed, I need to go back to 1958.

Kristin Levine’s historical novel takes place in the fall of 1958, in Little Rock. The Little Rock Nine have integrated Central High School in 1957-58, under Federal order and with the National Guard standing watch. But now the school year begins again, and Governor Faubus has closed all of the high schools in Little Rock, for public safety, he says.

Marlee is only in seventh grade, so her school will open as usual, but her big sister Judy, the one who always does the talking for her, is sent off to Pine Bluff to live with their grandmother to go to high school. Marlee can speak at home, but anywhere else, her shyness limits her to one-word answers and nods and shakes of the head. Even in math class, which she loves, she never volunteers an answer and if called on, can only stammer out a number in answer.

Then, a new girl, turns up in her class. Liz has a quick smile, a ready laugh, and no problem talking to anyone, and she quickly asks Marlee to pair with her on an oral report in history.

“You seem like a hard worker. At my old school, I was the one who
always ended up doing all the work,” Liz shrugged.

I knew what that was like. I’d worked with Sally on every project since third grade.

“Okay,” I said.

Liz seems fearless and yet friendly, and soon she persuades Marlee to promise to help present the oral report, promising her a book of math squares puzzles if she does. Gradually, Marlee finds it less of a struggle to get words and then sentences out, and she and Liz become best friends, meeting at the library and then at the zoo at their favorite place, the lion exhibit.

But then, Liz disappears suddenly from school. Sally triumphantly reports that Liz had been found out, discovered to be “passing” as white, and although Marlee is startled, she soon realizes that she misses her friend regardless of her race.

In her attempts to find a way to continue her friendship, Marlee gradually finds her voice, joining with her church school teacher in the WEC, the Women’s Education Committee, working for the re-opening of all Little Rock schools. Lines are quickly drawn among whites, and although her junior high principal dad quickly adds his name to the petitions to open the schools, her mother is too fearful of loss of her job and the threats of the segregationist majority.

As lines are quickly drawn between those who want their high schools open regardless of race and those who say never, Marlee begins to speak out and even draws her mother into the effort. Still shy, she finds the courage to locate her friend, who is working in the same organization with the Negro community, and although Liz’s pastor’s house is bombed and their parents forbid them to be together because of the danger, the two find ways to meet.

The shy, mute girl who just that summer was afraid to jump off the high dive suddenly finds herself hiding in the trunk of a car with sticks of dynamite belonging to a would-be bomber, and at last finds her full voice in helping prevent a race war in her own hometown.

Kristin Levine said she wanted to write a book about what came next, after 1957 and the Little Rock Nine, and Lester's first-person narrative details how Marlee and other citizens of Little Rock found their voices, the voices of reason and justice, in the year that followed.

“Talking,” I said. I’m going to try talking... to everyone.

And if I change, maybe other things will change, too. Maybe the schools will

“Maybe,” said Liz, laughing, and then it was time to hang up.

I knew my talking wouldn’t change all that. But I thought about what Daddy said, how things could be different in Little Rock, if only the right people could find their voice.

I wanted to be one of those people.

Just published in a new paperback edition, Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock (Penguin, 2012, 2013) brings a poignant new voice to the body of nonfiction and historical fiction dealing with the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Publishers Weekly writes, "Successfully weaving historical events with a dynamic personal narrative, Levine (The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had) offers a riveting, frequently tense portrait."

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