It is the Freedom Summer of 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner have gone missing. Celeste Tyree, a black student at Michigan who grew up in Detroit has gone to be a voting rights volunteer in Mississippi at the urgings of her white boyfriend, J.D.
The novel takes us inside the realities of Sixties racism in Mississippi. The town to which Celeste is assigned has had a lynching within the last five years. While training in Jackson, she is harassed while distributing leaflets and arrested for littering. En route to Pineyville, where she will work, her male driver, Matt, is stopped, searched and beaten by the Highway Patrol while she cringes in fear inside the car. Early on, the home she is staying in on Freshwater Road is fired into in the beginning of the night. She is clearly not welcome.
This is also a kind of Freedom Summer for Celeste. She left for Mississippi without telling her father, Shuck, except by letter which arrived after she left. In the course of the summer she confronts the complicated relationship between her mother and father and has to decide how she will cope with a revealing letter from her mother Wilamena.
Equally, she faces the choice between fear and leading a civil rights effort among the residents of Pineyville, working with the courageous children who attended Freedom Schools and the adults who attempted to register to vote. The tension of the novel increases as events move toward the group of six’s attempt to register to vote.
The book chronicles a journey into adulthood that not only faces the reality of racial prejudice but also the flawed human nature within her own community. Confronting domestic violence and marital infidelity and the limits of what people sometimes are able to do about these things faces her with choices about how she will deal with her own complicated family life.
This novel worked at several levels for me. It opened my eyes further to the vitriolic racism that is a recent memory for many blacks, and still a present reality. It also gave an account of flawed and courageous people facing hard realities. While there are themes of sexuality and violence, these are handled with restraint. Indeed, the narrative “voice” of this novel had a quietness and steadiness that allowed the unfolding tensions of the novel to create their own drama. I understand this is the author’s first novel. All that I read here suggests an author of great promise.