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Times are hard for 12-year-old James William's white family during the Depression, but he is happy at home and with his friends. He never questions the segregation around him; it's just the way things are. He knows Pa does not like "white folk spending time with colored." In Pa's hardware's store, there's talk of burning a black preacher's house, and when James William goes fishing with LeRoy, the black sharecropper's son, they go where no one sees them. LeRoy won't fish near the "hanging tree," and he talks about the horrific violence of the Klan, close to his home. Cooper's illustrations extend the stark contrast. Glowing, softly toned oil paintings show the beautiful smiling James William in an almost idyllic setting. Then there's the shock of the Klan riding wildly across a double-page spread. At sunrise one morning, the world lit by a rosy glow, James William sees a hooded Klan creature running down the road near his home. The hood comes off, and the boy sees his pa. Things will never be the same. "I still loved my pa. But I never really looked into his eyes again. And he never really looked into mine," says the boy, with the unforgettable accompanying picture showing father and son working in the store with their backs to one another. There is drama in both the history and the moral choices of a child forced to confront the failure of adult mentors who have always kept him safe and taught him right from wrong.
For more context, use this picture book with Mildred Taylor's Newbery Medal winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), a novel also set in Mississippi during the Depression but told from the viewpoint of a young African American girl in a family that has a shocking encounter with Klan violence. Or with Leon Walter Tillage's Leon's Story (1997), a quiet yet disturbing memoir about growing up black in the Jim Crow South, where constant racial harassment included the terror of the Klan.
The idea of a child's traumatic encounter with adult evil reaches beyond a particular time and place. Andrew Clement's The Jacket (2002), set in the present, is a good choice for middle readers. Following an ugly confrontation with a black boy in school, sixth-grader Phil begins to question the segregation around him. Why are all his neighbors white? Is his father a racist? Vander Zee's book can be also connected with the Holocaust curriculum. In M. E. Kerr's classic Gentlehands (1978), for sixth grade and up, teenage Buddy learns that the grandfather he has come to know and admire is a Nazi war criminal. Some older students may want to read Doris Lessing's brilliant short story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," in which a young South African white girl growing up privileged and apart comes of age when she suddenly sees a black man as a person and realizes what has been done to his world. Her family's farm was taken from the black people who once lived there. I included that story in my anthology Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa (1988).
For many young people, coming-of-age involves the discovery of weakness, failure, or betrayal in adult authority. But what if that discovery is of cruelty, even murder, and what if the community sanctions the evil? Without diatribe or heavy message, Mississippi Morning and these other stories bring urgent politics into personal life. Hazel Rochman
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