Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Less to Lose, More to Gain: A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson

My grandpa, Papa, used to say that gratitude was the key to happiness. If that was true, then I would never be happy.

With the chill of November upon us and all of Mr. Robinson's cotton picked clean in his fields, I was finally able to attend school. But instead of school that beautiful fall day, I was cooped up in Mrs. Robinson's kitchen. I hold Mrs. Robinson's fancy gold-rimmed plates over the empty bucket she had given me and scraped off leftovers. At least our hogs could be grateful for the slop.

The waters are anything but still in Stillwater, Mississippi. The black community is anguished over the brutal murder of Emmett Till and the continued shootings of local boys and men suspected of contacts with The NAACP, and most of the white community is both fearful and angry over the possible forced integration of their schools.

Rose's heart is filled with turmoil, too. Her grandmother, Ma Pearl, makes no secret of her resentment of Rose, left for her to raise by Rose's mother, and resentment of Aunt Ruth and her five children, abandoned by their no-good father and also living under her roof. Papa and Ma Pearl are allowed to live in their crowded, ramshackle house in the middle of Mr. Robinson's cotton fields in return for her work as housekeeper and Papa's management of the Robinson plantation, so when Ma Pearl finds Rose eating an abandoned ham sandwich on its way to the swill bucket, she slaps her hard.

"Quit ack'n like a triflin' nigga," Ma Pearl says. "I feed you at home."

But just as painful are the words she overhears from what she secretly calls the Cackling Church Ladies in the parlor.

My ears perked up when another voice came through clearly. "I wish the coloreds up north would realize how happy the coloreds are down here. What colored child would want to endure the same instructions as a white child anyway?" asked Mrs. Robinson. "I don't think they'd ever be able to keep up."

Rose knows she's smart, smart enough to keep up with her grade even if she's kept out during cotton planting and picking months.

But Rose has another reason to be torn. She knows she has her ticket out of the mess in Mississippi, a standing offer from her Aunt Belle to come and live with her and go to integrated schools in St. Louis. Last summer Rose was persuaded to stay in Stillwater by her best friend, fourteen-year-old Hallelujah Jenkins, son of the preacher and high school English teacher, who has sworn to stay in Mississippi and work for full rights for all of them. But now, in the weeks after Emmett Till's murderers are acquitted, black people are terrified at the random shootings of boys and grown men in their county, one shot just for putting the wrong amount of gas in a car. Even their county leader, Reverend Howard, is selling out and moving to California. Rose wonders what a seventh-grade black girl can possibly do to help. She's sick of going to church to hear Reverend Jenkins comparing the Israelites to black people in the South, promising that God will bring deliverance. Even Hallelujah confesses that he's "sick and tired of being sick and tired." Rose understands the choice faced by them all. To leave for their own good, to stay quiet and perhaps safe, or to act for all.

But then Hallelujah brings news of Rosa Parks and the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, and he persuades Rose to join him and a few students who call themselves the Negro Youth Council to picket on the main street of Stillwater. Rose is terrified, but somehow she gets herself there, with the excuse of delivering two of Aunt Ruthie's cakes to be sold in her Aunt Bertha's shop, the only Negro-owned store in town.

"I know you're scared," Aunt Bertha whispered. "But that's what bravery is. Being scared, but doing the job anyway."

Miss Bertha sighed. "You young people have less to lose, but you have so much more to gain."

Linda Williams Jackson's second book, A Sky Full of Stars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), tells a deeply American story, set far from the national stage, but true not only to its time, one torn by partisan, ethnic, and religious conflict, but like the one we all now live in, but still warmed by loving and dedicated family and brave leaders. Rose decides to call herself Rosa in honor of Rosa Parks and to stay in Mississippi, not letting hate or hardship chase her away from the place her heart calls home. After all there is so much to be gained.

Jackson's first-person narrative has the ring of truth, its voice that of its young protagonist, one whose world view is widening to see both the problems and the hope in her country and what she herself can do. This sequel to Jackson's 2017 Midnight Without a Moon (see review here.) is a powerful portrayal of one girl on the cusp of the times, "the best of times and the worst of times," where history is made by leaders, but also by the decisions of one young person at a time, the ones with the most to gain. Intimate and powerfully moving, an honest witness to its era and voice which speaks to our own, this middle reader novel is a perfect choice for classroom novel studies coordinated with American history.

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