Natchez Burning – Greg Isles

I saw this novel, the first of a trilogy, at our local bookstore and it caught my attention. I love stories about the civil rights era. I did not look at the page count and when I received the book from the public library it was a tome of 788 pages!  All dying to be read in the middle of writing student progress reports AND Christmas Concert rehearsals and prepping for my own family’s Christmas. But read it I did because I couldn’t put it down! The books in the trilogy are: Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood.

This is a story about racism and the Jim Crow era in the southern US. In this, the first book of the trilogy, the stage is set for a wide cast of characters masterfully controlled through a complex story line that slips back and forth in time yet remains easy to follow and to immerse the reader in. The story begins with a violent racially motivated death of a young civil rights activist then reverts back to today. Penn Cage is the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, formerly a lawyer turned writer. His father, Tom Cage is a beloved local doctor who has a secret that could tear his family apart as well as his reputation for being a man of honour and integrity; in 1968 Tom had a secret affair with his beautiful African-American nurse, Viola Turner. During that time of civil rights turmoil, segregation and violence Viola is gang-raped by a splinter group of the KKK, the Double Eagles. Viola leaves town for Chicago with a secret of her own, she has an illegitimate son, Lincoln.  Move forward about 50 years and Viola returns to Natchez, to die of cancer having Tom treat her in her dying days.

Lincoln believes Tom Cage is his father who abandoned him and Viola so Tom could have his nice upper-middle class White life while Viola and Lincoln struggle in poverty and bitterness. Lincoln accuses Tom of murdering his mother in an act of doctor assisted suicide and Tom is arrested.

As written by Paul Hyde, of the Greenville News, the novel “..traces the factors that allowed violent groups like the Klan to flourish: a combination of institutional racism, poverty, fundamentalist upbringing and the brutalities of combat in World War II and Korea.” Iles, an interview with Hyde, states that the issues of the Jim Crow era are not yet resolved and may take another lifetime to become so.

Stars: 5

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, is a raw, hard-hitting look at the black experience in the US. I loved the book, but the experiences in it are far beyond my lived experiences so I found it to be a real eye-opener, and at times, a narrative I did not always understand looking through my mature, white, middle-class eyes.

The story begins with violence. The protagonist, Starr goes to a party where gunshots ring out so she leaves with her childhood bestie, Khalil. While driving her home they are pulled over  by th ‘po-po’ and Khalil breaks every rule that Starr’s father (a former gang-banger who spent 3 years in prison) taught Starr not to do. Khalil is shot by the police office, whom Starr now refers to as Officer One-Fifteen, his badge number. Khalil was unarmed. Starr is the only witness to the shooting/murder.

Throughout the book Starr walks between two worlds. Her family have put her in a private school in the suburbs, a predominately white, middle-class school, where she struggles to fit in and hide her ‘hood’ self. When she is at home she tries to be her neighbourhood self and not been seen as putting on fancy airs as perceived by her neighbourhood friends as coming from her school environment. This dualism continues throughout the book where Starr’s father, BIg Mav, feels the family needs to stay in the neighbourhood and support it – he owns a grocery store in the community and her mother wants to move out to keep her family safe.

Starr eventually works up the courage, with her families support, to testify in front of a grand jury. Tension mounts and it seemed I lived through the experience by viewing it through Starr’s eyes in the hard-hitting, first person narrative that Thomas so skillfully weaves. This is such a fantastic YA social justice novel that damn I so want to teach it in a senior high school English class! While I say this, there is also a component to this story that I don’t understand, but think it would make a fantastic discussion with older teens; the connection to the title and Tupac Shakur’s philosophy ‘THUG LIFE’.

RATING: 5 stars