Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Lions of Little Rock (Book Review)

My apologies for going silent. . .  I meant to post this a week ago, but we took off for Hawai'i. . . (okay, I've now lost all sympathy I might've gotten!).  No internet access!  No phones!  No beds or hot water most of the time, either, because we camped all over the Big Island. . . but that's another post or 5, starting tomorrow!

So here's where I was a week ago:

I have just finished listening to The Lions of Little Rock by Kristen Levine, and I am reminded of why I  so often read juvenile historical fiction.

Set in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958, the book taught me far more than I ever learned in school about the Civil Rights movement and the integration of the Little Rock schools.  Yet at no point did I think I was reading a history lesson.  Always, the story and the feelings of the lead character were the focus, nor was Ms. Levine afraid to invent dramatic episodes--though for the most part that was done by modifying actual events, which were plenty dramatic.

I don't wish to provide any spoilers, so of the specific plot I will say only that it is the story of 7th-grader Marlee, an introverted girl who is very happy with numbers, but speaks to no one but her family and one friend.  In a big part, the story is about how Marlee finds her voice and learns to speak--because she has the motivation when the issues of integration split her family.  In this way, Ms. Levine is able to use the historical setting to provide a real and moving background for one girl's coming of age.

Alternatively, you could say that the historical drama unfolds against the backdrop of Marlee's growth.  Take your pick; whether you read the story for the personal drama or the historical, there is never a dull moment, and the well-crafted prose carries you along.

I am tantalized by one other aspect of the period that Ms. Levine hints at but doesn't develop--warning us that Marlee will have another battle ahead of her in a few years.  As mentioned, Marlee is very good with numbers.  She is, in fact, a math whiz, and her dream is to become an aerospace engineer--to design satellites.  She does notice that there are no women among the scientists she sees in the news, so she knows that this may not be easy.  It is only later that she realizes that there are no black people, either, which I think underscores the way in which the racial bias of her time and place became so internalized that a child would not even realize there was anything odd about it--until something happens to open her eyes.

I grew up during the Civil Rights era, but I was a Northwesterner--very far from issues of black and white, though closer to other race issues brought on by WWII.  I have never been able to understand the attitudes of the segregationists.  This book doesn't help me understand that--and I'm not sure I want to understand that level of prejudice--but it does help me feel what it would have been like to live in the middle of it.

Kudos to Kristen Levine for writing a book that is both a great story and a thought-provoking read.

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