Monday, October 20, 2014

There's A War On, You Know! Susan Marcus Bends the Rules by Jane Cutler

Dear Marv, I wrote,

You were right about baseball. I am the only Yankee fan in town. So I just do not bother with baseball. I have other stuff to worry about. One thing is trying to get rid of my New York accent before school starts. Another thing is Jim Crow. That is the name they give to laws they have to keep Negroes and white people separated from each other. Can you believe it? I would love to do something against old Jim Crow, but I don't know what. What could a kid do against laws like that, anyway?
And one more thing. I have an ugly haircut that I hope will grow out in time for school.

Please write back.

Still Your Best Friend, Susan

In 1942 there's a war on, and a lot of things have changed. There are air raid drills, and Joe DiMaggio has been drafted and won't be around if the Yankees play the Cardinals in the Worlds Series. And now Susan's dad has to take a job in St. Louis, where everyone is a Cards fan.

Susan knows that things will be different in Clayton, the small town just outside St. Louis where they move. But there are still young men away in the armed forces, still double-feature movies on Sunday night with her parents, and even a tiny "hole-in-the-wall" Chinese restaurant like they one they loved back in the Bronx. And there is a girl her age, Marlene with her bossy little sister Liz in her building who make friends with her right away and show her how to roller skate in the cool downstairs garage and introduce her to the town's swimming pool and its high dive.

But some things are very different. People talk differently and tell her they can't understand her New York accent. Marlene's grumpy grandmothers complain that she shouldn't play with Susan because she's a Jew, something she never heard back in the Bronx. And then she meets Loretta, a black girl who lives in the basement with her mother who is the building custodian, and when she wants to invite Loretta along to the pool, Susan's dad has to explain that Missouri has something called Jim Crow laws that mean that black and white people can't go to the same swimming pools, schools, movies, or even restaurants.

But as the steamy summer goes on and the girls share monopoly games, Kool Aid, skating, and Loretta's mother's homegrown tomato sandwiches, their friendship grows. Then Susan discovers that there is an interesting loophole in Missouri's Jim Crow laws. Public transportation is not segregated, and Susan comes up with an idea for an August adventure they all can share.

"What in the world can you be thinking, Miss Susan New York Marcus?" asks Marlene.

Maybe she can't change Missouri's Jim Crow laws, but Susan believes the friends can bend them a little. Her plan is that she and Marlene get on the midday bus to St. Louis, and Loretta will get on two stops later. They will all move to the wide seats around the back of the bus and see all the downtown St. Louis sights together.

We all got dressed up that day.

Cranky Liz would not keep up. Nobody was waiting at the stop where we had planned to be, so the driver just kept on going. Now what?

The girls take the next bus, wondering if Loretta noticed that they weren't on the first bus, but when the bus came to the stop, Loretta is there waiting.

"She waited," Marlene whispered.

"She broke the rules," I grumbled, smiling. "Maybe that is what they mean when they say 'rules are made to be broken.'" Marlene said.

"Marlene, did you just make that up?" I demanded.

"No, honest, it's a saying. I think it means you sometimes have to think for yourself, like Loretta did."

And when Susan leads the girls off the bus near her parents' favorite movie house and takes them to their favorite little Chinese restaurant, the girls are ready to try to bend one Jim Crow rule. But when they get there, they find something scary:

Half the window was smashed, and on it, in thick black paint, someone had written JAPS GO HOME! JAP TRAITOR was written in black paint on the sidewalk.

"Let's get out of here," said Marlene.

Loretta and Liz did not budge. Liz moved closer to the window and peered through it.

And the Chinese chef and his wife recognize Susan and motion them inside. "Not Jap! Chinese," he says, seating them together at one small table. Susan's plan to integrate a restaurant is a success. Take that, Jim Crow! she thinks. She breaks open her fortune cookie and reads the fortune inside.

"The future sleeps in the present."

Jane Cutler's Susan Marcus Bends the Rules (Holiday House, 2014) portrays the world of 1942 vividly, with the sounds of radio baseball games through open windows, fans whirring in the summer heat, the smells of warm tomatoes on the vine and bus exhaust and Chinese food that remind Susan of home, all combined with the different views of race and laws in World War II America--a time when there were many changes and many more soon to come. Cutler writes comfortably for middle elementary readers, portraying a child's world that is different in some ways but the same as today's children share in the most important ways, the ways of friendship and family and fairness. "Rebelling against discrimination is only part of this appealing story, but it’s the most memorable part. An enjoyable chapter book with great potential for discussion," says Booklist.

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