By Denise Nicholas
Agate. 335 pp. $23.95
A southbound train pulls out of Memphis in the opening paragraph of Denise Nicholas's superb novel, Freshwater Road, and aboard it sits an idealistic and anxious young woman named Celeste Tyree, headed for three months of volunteer work as part of 1964's "Freedom Summer." On the empty seat next to her, she spreads out a map of the South and an information sheet from her sponsoring organization that has the disquieting headline "How To Stay Alive In Mississippi."
Vivid and economical, filled with presentiment, this scene begins a memorable book, surely the best work of fiction about the civil rights movement since Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Where Gaines made the movement the climax of a sprawling narrative of a century-long life, Nicholas sets her entire tale within a single summer, as Celeste teaches in a "freedom school" and mobilizes blacks to register to vote in a segregated backwater called Pineyville. By deeply inhabiting every character, by intricately depicting every moment, Nicholas manages to be intimate and epic simultaneously.
Freshwater Road is a coming-of-age story that unfolds against the backdrop of epochal events, particularly the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The assassination of Medgar Evers and the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party also hover in the wings of Nicholas's narrative. Simply to note those episodes is to be reminded of why the civil rights movement has yielded far more history than fiction -- the work of David Garrow, Taylor Branch, Diane McWhorter, Nick Kotz and David Halberstam, among others. With an actual cast of characters as larger-than-life as Martin Luther King Jr., Bull Connor, George Wallace, Lyndon Johnson and Fred Shuttlesworth, any novelist would have good reason to despair over how invention could possibly outdo reality. Beyond that, the movement represented a genuine example of Good versus Evil, which has a way of turning pedantic and inert when transmuted into fiction.
A first-time novelist best known as a television actress from "Room 222," "In the Heat of the Night" (for which she also wrote) and "The Cosby Show," Nicholas rises to these challenges better than most literary veterans. While she comes to the book with her memories of having performed with the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, she has delivered something infinitely richer and more artistically satisfying than a veiled memoir. She has found the human complexity within the overarching passion play. Rather than dividing her characters into dastardly whites and saintly blacks, she boldly explores the fault lines of class, pigment, geography and character within the African-American community.
Nicholas's appreciation of the untidy truths of human nature starts with her unsentimental portrait of Celeste. A child of the North and of the black middle class -- her father, Shuck Tyree, owns a popular bar in Detroit, and she is attending the University of Michigan -- Celeste volunteers for Freedom Summer for complicated reasons. At one level, Nicholas writes, "She saw herself as a cross between Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman, the fires of righteousness flaming in her heart." Yet she also recognizes that she'd "come here to shore up her own Negro-ness," guilty that for so long "she'd thought she was above it."
Her immersion into Pineyville, then, brings all kinds of shocks, from outhouses to insects, from the timidity of some local blacks to the ferocity of the white sheriff. Nicholas indelibly conveys the fear that accompanies Celeste nearly every second of the summer, whether she is being beaten and hurled into jail or walking along a dark stretch of road to a pay phone, wondering which passing car might carry her killer. She wrings out accomplishments in tiny increments and at great cost. Three local blacks succeed in registering to vote, but meanwhile the church that housed her freedom school is burned to the ground, and one of the pupils mysteriously drowns in a nearby river. To Celeste's agony, it looks possible that the child, inspired by lessons about runaway slaves, was trying to flee her bullying father.
Toward the end of the book, Nicholas writes with typical insight about the toll on her heroine: "Celeste had packed and unpacked her suitcase a hundred times in her mind. She first started doing it the night the shots were fired through the houses on Freshwater Road and blasted out the back window of Mr. Tucker's maroon Hudson. Whoever had done it surely believed this would scare the Negro people out of their drive for voting rights and scare her back to where she came from. She fled back to Detroit a hundred times, in her dreams, in her walks to the outhouse, in her daily struggle with the lack of running water, in her loneliness."
By portraying Celeste's fears and doubts, Nicholas makes the young woman's commitment all the more impressive and all the more believable. Nicholas also shows just how deeply it unsettles Celeste's family. Her mother, living in New Mexico with her second husband, sees Celeste as hopelessly naive. "You'll give and you'll give," she chastises her in one letter, "and it'll still be crabs in a barrel." A self-proclaimed "race man," or black nationalist, Shuck vacillates between pride and anger at his daughter's grit. While he supports the civil rights cause, at a more personal level he drips condescension for Mississippi's blacks -- so hopelessly "country" while he is "siddity."
As Nicholas paints Shuck during a few chapters set in Detroit, she evokes the imminent changes there, too -- changes that would take the form not of political liberation but self-destructive revolt. Three years before the Detroit riots, Shuck can see the substance of black neighborhoods starting to erode. Nicholas describes him driving to meet his lover, a high-school teacher:
"Shuck drove north on West Grand Boulevard, passing the deep-porched houses not destroyed by the expressway. At night they were presentable, but Shuck knew in the light of day you could see the disrepair creeping around the eaves, the paint chipping off the wood trim, the old people let go of by their delinquent children. . . . In the middle of the day the discarded young men stood around on corners, and women ran from the bus stop to their front doors, hands in their purses, clutching kitchen knives or sewing shears to ward off junkies."
It is impossible to praise Freshwater Road too much, in part because it arrives without a large promotional campaign or much publishing-industry buzz. The credit, then, goes not only to the author but to Agate, the publishing house in suburban Chicago that has brought such a worthy book into print and, with any luck, given Denise Nicholas yet another career, this one as a novelist.
Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of "Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life." His other books include "Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church."