What I Read in May 2016 Part V . . .Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd--Young Adult historical fiction
Thirteen-year-old tomboy Billie Simms likes her small Alabama town but dreams of traveling places. She has never thought about things like culture, tradition or prejudice before this summer of 1961 when her eyes begin to open. Her family isn't prejudiced! After all, their black maid Lavender raised Billie and is raising Billie's baby brother Royal. She does, however, begin to notice that where Mama asks Lavender, Daddy tells. Billie begins to understand that Lavender puts on a mask around Billie's family and Billie doesn't know what the woman is actually thinking. Then there's an incident at the local grocery with a black boy and Billie begins to understand that there are some people in her town that are prejudiced and would do anything to protect their long-standing whites-only traditions. When she learns the Freedom Riders, whites and blacks sitting together on a bus, are coming through town, Billie begins to fear what might happen. While her best friend Grant is content to take pictures and his father, a truthful newspaper reporter reports on the facts, Billie wonders what she, a teenage girl, can do to make a difference? When she meets Jarmaine, a black girl, Billie begins to understand what prejudice means and how one person can make even the smallest difference.
The first half of this book reads like a YA version of The Help. I was very disappointed that the main character is white and the black girl is her friend. I think the author made a safe choice. He chooses to write from the perspective of a teenage girl so why not a black teenage girl? Once the bus comes to town, the plot picks up a bit. It seems like it stops after that but then it picks up again later. I'm from the north and I was really shocked by some of the hateful and stupid things people said and did. People here tend not to say those things publicly. I was aware of the freedom fighters but I haven't seen the PBS documentary or read much about them. I've read and seen some movies set during integration in the 60s and 70s and I know about the bombing in the church but the Anniston bus incident was new to me. It baffles my mind that anyone could be so hurtful and so filled with prejudice and hate. Some of Billie's thoughts and comments are sadly true even today. I had a hard time putting the book down but it didn't have that edge of my seat feeling that I thought it would. The writing style isn't super great but the voice does sound like a young teenage girl losing her innocence.
Billie kind of annoyed me in the beginning of the book. Her crush on Grant really really got on my nerves and her thoughts about Lavender were basically lifted from The Help. Her character growth is excellent though. I liked how she learned to think about things and how she wanted to make a difference. It was a little bittersweet watching her grow up and see her family and her town with new eyes. I liked Grant and his photojournalism aspirations and how he seemed oblivious to all else. I think his photos tell a story and could do something to make a difference. His father is a good man who inspires others to tell the truth. I liked Jarmaine and how she also has to go on a personal journey and overcome her own prejudices and her fears to make a difference.
I recommend this to readers age 12+ who want to learn more about American history but for adults I would supplement this with some primary sources. I