The winds of change are blowing through Greenwood, Miss., in 1964. When the summer volunteers first arrive in the segregated town, they are called “invaders” and “cockeyed.” These college students, black and white, aim to change “the most racist, most dangerous state in America” through nonviolent action.
How to tell a story as sprawling, complex and galvanizing as Freedom Summer? Deborah Wiles employs the capacious documentary-novel form she used to powerful effect in “Countdown,” the first book of her Sixties Trilogy. This second novel follows different characters and is set two years later. Interspersed with the first-person tale of a spunky 12-year-old white girl named Sunny Fairchild are historic newspaper headlines, song lyrics, photographs and portraits of student leader Bob Moses and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Like many Southern white kids of the time, Sunny has never questioned segregation. She figures that the people in the “colored” section of town are content with their separate schools, churches and pools. But short chapters in the voice of 14-year-old Ray Bullis, a talented black baseball player, reveal the discrepancies and poverty. Fear sharpens when “white men drive by in they slow cars.”
Sunny and Ray show up first as marginal characters in each other’s scenes and then together in moments of intense danger. Their wary curiosity and growing respect for one another ring true. Less believable, though, and too rushed at the end is a subplot involving Sunny, her absent mother and a female summer volunteer. That is a quibble, though. What Wiles does, brilliantly, is to plunge readers into that tense, heady era marked by Dr Pepper, Converse sneakers, Willie Mays and very high stakes.
By Deborah Wiles