Book Review – Laurie R King

Laurie R King, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series

Garment of Shadows (2012) is the 12th novel of suspense featuring Mary Russell, aka Mrs Sherlock Holmes. As with most of these novels, the actions takes place immediately after the previous novel (the exception was the short story Beekeeping for Beginners, which is the first novel The Beekeeper’s Apprentice story from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes).

Mary continues to write her memoirs looking back on her life with Holmes. She is a fascinating character, his intellectual equal and charming partner. Holmes recognised her talents and her character and encourages her personal growth. They truly complete each other and provide wonderful witty repartee. Laurie King does an extraordinary job of giving us these two characters, with wonderful atmospheric prose, superbly researched historical and geographical detail and a fast paced story.

The opening scene in Morocco has Mary trying to solve the mystery of who she is, having awoken with blood and bandages, amnesia and a sense of impending doom. Meanwhile Holmes begins the hunt for her while also uncovering a larger threat of war between France, Spain and the Rif Rebellion (1920s)(with British allies). We meet again the brothers Ali and Mahmond Hazrs (from O Jerusalem and Justice Hall) in a superbly written, intense mystery. The continued development of so many characters that the reader cares about coupled with the political intrigue at an exotic location creates another wonderful installment in this series.

The personal relationship revealed is also acute; they both realise what life might be like without the other. The beloved relationship has subtle clues and wonderful turns of phrase. I loved the scene when Holmes finds Mary but she doesn’t know who he is.  I also drank a lot of mint tea and submerged myself in the warm atmosphere of this book.

Book Quotes:

My wife walked away from all her possessions, and none of the company was concerned?…And yet Sherlock Holmes worried.…he would give Russell until morning, before he turned the town upside down.”

“If Gertrude Bell can sit down with the Arabs in Mesopotamia, why not Russell in the Rif?”

“When the man who claimed to be my husband (he did not look like someone who fit the word husband) said my name, faint reverberations had gone down my spine, stirring – not so much memories as the shadow of memories. As if I were outside the library (Libraries – these I remembered) anticipating the treasures within.”

“He smiled, and for the first time I knew his face. Not his history or who he was to me – but that he was part of me, I know longer doubted. I came near to weeping, at the relief of having a companion in this lost world.”

“My dear Russell, never have I approached you without a qualm.” “Extraordinary how it can hurt to laugh, yet also heal.”

“The library … was silent. It smelt of books and ink. I felt my muscles relax, as if the odour had the power to transport me to my far away home.”

Book Quotes:

“I am an omnivorous reader with a retentive memory for trifles.” Sherlock Holmes

“There is no scent so pleasant to my nostrils as that faint, subtle reek which comes from an ancient book.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Author Interview – Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman, awardwinning author

Valerie is an award winning writer, most recently for Blood Clay (2012 Eric Hoffer Award winner for excellence in independent publishing; finalist for the 2012 John Gardner Prize in Fiction; short-listed for 2012 Montaigne Medal honoring thought-provoking books, and long-listed for the SIBA awards. She is a writer, poet, teacher and editor whose work emerges from her Appalachian roots. Her work has garnered critical praise and reader raves. Fidelities is a collection of short stories, Wake Wake Wake is a poetry collection. She is the poetry editor for Prime Number magazine.

Do you remember the last time you said to someone: you really must read this book now? and that book was?  The Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, whom I got to know many, many years ago when she visited the Kestrel conference in West Virginia. The book still resides beside my bed. But someday soon. Another was Hustle by Jason Skipper, a fellow Press 53 author. It was a great, gritty coming-of-age book.

Are you part of a book club?  I am not a member of a book club, although I love visiting with them! It was very exciting to join your book club via Skype, and I later did a conference call with one in South Carolina. I’ve met with book clubs in office parks and libraries and in an elegant old home in Greensboro, where I tried my best to handle the delicate gold-rimmed china without incident.

What is your favorite line from a book? These are very difficult questions, you know!

‘As you love me, Buck, as you love me, was what he whispered.’ The Call of the Wild.

A recent book you bought just for the cover?  I haven’t done that recently, though among my favorite covers on recent reads: a black-and-white photograph of a stunned and muddy boy on Miracle Boy by Pinckney Benedict, and the embossed dust jacket on Journal of a UFO Investigator by David Halperin – it looks and feels just like the heavy ball-point-pen doodles a high school student would carve into the cover of his notebook.

Have you heard any good books lately? Driving? in an airplane? Did you choose the reader of your book? Did you like the audio version of your book? (I assume you have an audio book here – I haven’t looked this us and depend on my library for most of the audio!) I haven’t listened to audio books, as I tend to be the one driving or walking, and I must pay attention or there will be disaster. I did not have an audio version for Blood Clay. It would be wonderful to have an audio version of my new novel, which has a first-person female narrator who is 16 years old. Maggie would have a strong, alto voice, not one that has been shaped to coaxing boys.

Do you have a genre to beach read? (we held a discussion on beach reads, and nearly everyone brought mysteries)  I enjoy historical fiction and science fiction: both transport me to other places and times, nourishing my mind as the water and sun do my body. And I like to read books about the place itself, either history or natural history.

Do you have a favorite literary adaptation on TV or film? Is there something coming out you can’t wait to see?  I like to read the book first, because if I see the film first, those images are so strong.  I’ve been impressed again and again by Clint Eastwood’s adaptations.  I’m excited about a movie version of The Martian Chronicles.

What book is on your nightstand? on your coffeetable? On my nightstand: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Beside the nightstand, which is a tiny folding table: Waxwings by Daniel Nathan Terry, The Cove by Ron Rash, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead, Carry Each His Burden by James Goertel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Goliath by Susan Woodring. I’m woefully behind in my reading and just bought three more books yesterday. On the coffee table ? Sailing and Our State magazines, a hand-bound book of poems by Nhat Hanh with Zen paintings by Vo-Dinh, and Because the Cat Purrs: How We Relate to Other Species and Why It Mattersby Janet Lembke.

Paper or electronic? Do you take notes? I have a few e-books on my phone but do not have a dedicated e-reader. I still prefer paper, because I like the feel and smell and heft of a book in hand.

Do you read plays or poetry for pleasure? I read a lot of poetry as poetry editor for Prime Number magazine, so I am always seeing new work. That’s exciting. I also read poetry every day, through daily e-poetry services and by visiting magazine websites, or just picking up one of the many books of poetry I have around my home and office.

Have you memorized any poems? I may have the world’s worst memory. The poem that comes most fully to mind is Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost, one of his elegant dark poems.

Is music important to your writing? (do you listen to music when you write? when you read? do you incorporate songs into your work that have ‘hidden’ meaning? or help set the tone?) I don’t listen to music while I write or read. I think I may have some brain disorder, because I really don’t multitask well. If I have music on, I get caught up in the music and can’t write. I already noted that I don’t listen to audio books because I would be a hazard to myself and others. The only book where music has been important was Survivors, where the main character writes songs and rewrites the words to popular tunes.

What were your most cherished books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero / heroine from one of those books? Black Beauty, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Huck Finn, Tales from Shakespeare, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, stories by Poe and Jack London, A Girl of the Limberlost.  A book called Ocelot that I chose as my reward for working in the elementary school library. I read a lot of natural history and science, Silent Spring, and then became caught up in Lord of the Ringsand science fiction: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula LeGuin.

Favorite characters? I always treasured girls and women who refused to play by the rules of gender, often somewhat secondary characters. Eowyn LOTR, for example, who is strong and devoted and passionate and brave.

Is there one book you wish all children would read? Whatever book they choose, as long as they read!

Is there one book you would like adults to read? Perhaps the same answer…as I teach college now, I see with depressing regularity that students do not read, and that includes creative writing students. When I am trying to illustrate a point about plot or character, I generally use examples from films and television shows as they have become the canon of our time.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? Past presidents?  I’d hope that every president has a well-worn and much-annotated volume of the Riverside Shakespeare, like the one on my shelf. All the lessons are there: pride, compassion, ambition, folly, self-sacrifice, arrogance, love, honor, deceit, bravery.

And The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. DON’T PANIC!

If you could meet any writer dead or alive, who would it be? what would you want to know? (ok, you can make it two or a dinner table!) I sure would have loved an evening with Ray Bradbury, recently departed. His vibrant, graceful stories expanded my universe. Among the living, Margaret Atwood. I have loved her work: A Handmaid’s Tale, her short story The Bog Man to a poem about eating lima beans with her fingers!

Is there one book you wish someone else would write?  Whatever book is the one that demands to be written, and that the writer creates without regard to what the market says.

Do you tend to keep books, lend them out or give them away?  I tend to keep books. I seldom will sell a book, though I give books to students when I think they should have them. I say that I am ‘lending’ them but seldom get them back. I hope that Rumi and the Breece Pancake stories and others have remained important in the lives of those students.

Do you have a favourite question that you are often asked about your writing? a favourite question that was only asked once.  I do like your question about recommended reading for the president.  I’m generally asked about what I read as a child, and sometimes I expand on that quite a bit. I grew up in the country and read what was at hand, a bookcase full of old books that included classic poetry, the complete Mark Twain (and I’ve read every word, sometimes many times over), and the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. I still have both full sets, carried from place to place in New York State, West Virginia, and North Carolina. I suppose that if I ever do move onto a boat in my old age, those volumes will have to find a home ashore.

Any guilty reading pleasures? I will read nearly anything. I can read a guidebook to birds or insects or rocks or whatever until it comes apart.

Thanks Helen for these wonderful questions, and the opportunity to be part of your blog and library presence. My next novel is all but done. I am finishing the last chapter, and then will do a read-through and mark it up for revision. The working title Backwater, which is not good at all, but I hope to find a title somewhere in the text. Then it’s off to find an agent and publisher. Press 53, a wonderful small press that published Blood Clay and my poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, has decided to focus on short story and poetry collections only.

Book Review – Shadow in Serenity

Shadow in Serenity
A Review by Kay Aune

Carney Sullivan is the daughter of professional con artists and grew up in a traveling carnival.  She learned and followed their criminal ways for 17 years, but had eloped with Abe Sullivan and settled in his hometown of Serenity, Texas.
Nine years have passed and Logan Brisco comes to town trying to gain economic support for the building of an amusement park.  Carney immediately recognizes Brisco’s con in the making and tries to get the town’s residents to protect themselves from him. If she fails, the very same people who have forgiven and accepted her back into their fold will lose their life savings!

This story is a great read, filled with suspense, learning, forgiveness, and loving.  It is available in the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and large print.

Book Review – “Flygirl”

A Review by Kathy Pestotnik

History is filled with moments that disrupt our lives and change the way we look at the world. Think Hurricane Katrina or September 11, 2001; or (if you’re old enough) the Challenger disaster or the Kennedy assassinations. Some historical novels center on events like these. The best ones, however, put these moments into the very personal context of their characters lives.

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, begins in December, 1941. Ida Mae Jones is eighteen and old enough to make her dream of becoming a pilot come true. She grew up crop dusting with her daddy in Slidell, Louisiana.  She knows how to fly and she’s memorized all the manuals for her pilot’s license; but, since the death of her father, she cleans houses to help support her family. There are only two factors Ida Mae’s passion and determination can’t change: her sex and her race. That was the hard truth on December 6, 1941.

And then everything changed. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II, and Ida Mae Jones made some hard choices. Altering her father’s pilot’s license was a risk. Trusting that her fair complexion and “easy” hair would be enough to allow her to pass for white was a dangerous gamble. Living with her choices was the hardest of all.

What I loved about this book was that it constantly challenged my assumptions and perspective. When I think of World War II, I think of the risks and sacrifices of those in the armed services. I think about their parents worrying and waiting for the next letter. I think about rationing, blackout curtains, and curfews. I think about women drawing lines up the back of their legs to camouflage the absence of stockings. Yet for Ida Mae, World War II presented an opportunity that could not have come to her any other way.

As I read I constantly worried that Ida Mae would accidentally walk into a Colored Only bathroom, or drink from the wrong fountain. Then it came to me. There were no colored people in the world Ida Mae stepped into. There had been no women. I’m sure there were no signs on the men’s room doors. They were all men’s rooms!

I also liked the ending. No spoiler, here. We all know World War II ended, and with it, the WASP program. I’ll just say that, to me, any other ending would have been hard to swallow. I promise, it will make you think.

So here’s to you, Ida Mae Jones, and to you, Sherri L. Smith! You had me all the way!

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library in traditional format.

Book Review – “Doc”

A Review by Kathy Pestotnik

When I was a kid I used to watch a TV program called Wyatt Earp. The theme song was catchy and we sang it at the top of our lungs on the swings at recess. Wyatt Earp was a famous marshall of the Old West, which was sometime before World War II because my dad didn’t know much about it. I knew Wyatt Earp was quirky, because even though he was a good guy, he wore a black hat. And Hugh O’Brien, who played him, was plenty cute. Anyway, one of Wyatt’s sidekicks was Doc Holliday.

As you can plainly see, when I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s novel, Doc, I already had a wealth of knowledge on the subject of Doc Holliday. Or not. I didn’t know that John Henry (Doc) Holliday was born with a cleft lip and palate, and that his uncle and another surgeon repaired the lip when he was two months old…in 1851! Or that he was a Georgia boy, who grew into adolescence with an understandable disdain for Yankees.

Despite his cleft palate, he learned to speak elegantly, and not just in English, either. He was a talented classical pianist. He lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was 15, and his uncle (who took him in when his father remarried immediately) paid his way through a Northern dental school. Another young foster child in the family taught him to play cards. (This was a happy twist of fate, because a dental practice in Dodge City, Kansas, didn’t exactly bring home the bacon, or even the pork’n’beans).

Doc was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 21, and treated his cough with liberal (and frequent) doses of bourbon, and his pain was self-treated with laudanum. I guess that’s why they called it the Wild West:  No Robitussin and no Advil!

Although Doc  is historical fiction, most of the characters are not.  Real or not, they are well-developed, believably flawed and humanly quirky. (If you don’t love Doc, the Earp brothers, China Joe, Eddie Foy and/or Father Alexander von Angensperg, see me after class.  I will eat my hat.)

The dialogue sparkles and made me laugh out loud more than once, so I wouldn’t read it on the bus if I were you. While I’m no expert on how much research a writer of historical fiction needs to do, Russell’s research was prodigious. I read the Author’s Note!  And I’m not even getting extra credit!

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and for digital e-readers.

For more information on this book, you can follow this link and read an excerpt on the author’s website.

Banned Books Week: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

By Catherine H. Armstrong

As I was preparing this weekend to celebrate Banned Books Week 2012 with this blog, I kept reflecting on my favorite book of all time –  To Kill a Mockingbird – and trying to understand why so many people continue to find it objectionable.  At its core, Harper Lee has written a beautiful book about growing up in the deep South, and overcoming the horrors of prejudice.  It’s about three children trying to understand why and how some people treat others as inferior, and learning to overcome the fear that eventually leads to that prejudice.

As a child reader, the lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird made an indelible impression upon me and have followed me my entire life.  I remember as though it were yesterday the words of Atticus Finch as he told Jem, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  He goes on to explain that mockingbirds do nothing to draw the wrath of people; they just fly around making beautiful music for people to enjoy.  Even as a child, I was able to connect the dots and understand that Atticus Finch wasn’t just referring to mockingbirds, he was talking about people, too.  Just as it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, it should also be a sin to hurt others for no better reason than the color of their skin, or because they’re different and that difference scares us.  Even then, it seemed clear to me that racism was about fear, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to be fearful in my life.

Why then, with so many important lessons, has To Kill a Mockingbird found itself challenged so many times?  What could really be wrong with challenging…wrong?  This question has bothered me for years and this time I couldn’t rest  until I got answers.

In the midst of my extensive internet search, I came upon the most wonderful article by Nicholas Patler on his weblog,  Patler had taken the time to answer the questions, long before I’d ever even begun my search.  In fact, Patler’s article was so well researched and written that I felt the need to share it on this blog.  With the author’s permission, I am reprinting his article in its entirety.  For the original article, you can follow this link.

Many thanks to Nicholas Patler for his gracious permission in the reprinting of this wonderfully researched article.

Killing the Mockingbird:
Historical and Contemporary Efforts
to Ban Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
by Nicholas Patler

To Kill A Mockingbird has certainly proven to be troublesome literature over the years. Ever since Harper Lee’s novel stormed the literary world in 1960, becoming an overnight success by selling in its first year alone more than 500,000 copies, there have been thousands of attempts to have the book banned from classroom or curriculum use and removed from public schools and libraries in towns and cities all across the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, To Kill A Mockingbird is generally listed in the top fifty—at times in the top five—of the most frequently challenged books of the twentieth century. Some of these challenges, spearheaded by opponents on both the political right and left, white and black, have been successful or temporarily successful in having the book removed or banned, while other attempts managed only to stir up controversy, make a flash in the news and then petered out.[1]

Harper Lee

Parents, organizations, groups and even students have given a variety of reasons for convincing us that killing the mockingbird would be in our children’s—and ultimately society’s—best interests. In one of these earliest attempts in 1966, for example, the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, Virginia ordered the book removed from all county libraries because, in their opinion, a novel about rape was “immoral literature.” So ludicrous was this rationale that the unpretentious Harper Lee herself jumped into the controversial fray and made it embarrassingly clear in an editorial in the Richmond News-Leader that the school board members had not even bothered to read or understand her book. And being the nice small-town girl from Monroeville, Alabama that she was, and emulating the socially conscious Atticus Finch, Lee figured the only excuse was that perhaps they couldn’t read, so she kindly sent a contribution out of her own pocket to help enroll the school board members in a literacy program.[2]

Other critics of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book have sought its removal because, like the Hanover Country School Board, they too felt it was immoral or obscene—or a threat to community and traditional values. In 1977, To Kill A Mockingbird was temporarily banned in Eden Valley, Minnesota because of objectionable words used in the novel, such as “damn” and “whore lady.” A few years later, the book was challenged in a New York school district because some people there considered it a “filthy, trashy novel.” In 2001, a Glynn County, Georgia school board member, energized by the protests of parents, worked to squelch the mockingbird and anything else—books, educational programs and activities—which managed to set off the profanity beepers of their moral radars. And as recently as 2004, the Charles County (Maryland) Board of Education seriously considered proposals to censor books deemed inappropriate for children, including To Kill A Mockingbird.[3]

In one interesting case study from the 1980s on efforts to censor To Kill A Mockingbird, researcher Jill May found that there had been at least ten common objections raised against the novel since in was first published, most falling under the category of threatening traditional values and societal norms. Some of these include:

“the portrayal of conflict between children and their elders … profanity and questionable language; ungrammatical speech by characters; depictions of violence; references to sex; negative statements about authority; the lack of portrayal of the  family unit as the basis of American life; and references tothe super-natural and witchcraft” (we know this one all too well with the swirl of controversy over the Harry Potter series).[4]

Richard and Mildred Loving
Challenged Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which banned interracial marriages.

Interestingly, while doing research for this paper, I found very little mainstream southern opposition of To Kill A Mockingbird, or overt challenges to the book in libraries and classrooms in the 1960s South—although the study I just cited claims that until the mid-sixties “complaints came from southern conservatives.” I have to admit that due to my own preconceived, stereotypical notions, I fully expected to find the South of the 1960s rising up more fervently to challenge the book—particularly a book of such magnitude and popularity, and one that was made into a movie—as an offense to southern sensibilities. And certainly the challenges that did arise over the novel’s perceived threat to traditional southern or family values, without mentioning race per se, such as when the Hanover County School Board criticized the story as immoral because it was about rape, nevertheless masked the racial prejudice of the day and the enduring sexual taboos between white females and black males. Interestingly, at the time To Kill A Mockingbird came under fire in Hanover County, a Virginia law forbidding interracial marriage was being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court—a challenge initiated by Richard and Mildred Loving after they were taken from their house in the middle of the night and hauled off to jail for miscegenation.[5]

But other than white supremacy groups, both then and now, which openly criticized the novel as anti-white, there does not appear to have been much explicit southern or white protest to Lee’s portrayal of the general state of race relations in the 1930s South. Perhaps that’s because To Kill A Mockingbird was probably not required reading in the southern classroom during this time—at least not as extensively as it is now with more than 70 percent of schools using the book as part of their standard literature curriculum—so there was little opportunity for breeding heated, public opposition.[6] I don’t know for sure. Maybe somebody here can shed more light on this. And by the time it was a classroom tool in southern schools, the once burning race issue had abated as an acceptable motivator for literary censorship and other issues such as profanity or threat to values—the nuts and bolts of literary censorship and, by the way, still often entangled with racism, sexism and xenophobia—became the rallying cries of a the day.

James Carville

Also, an important point that we should keep in mind is that To Kill A Mockingbird had an immeasurably positive impact on the lives of its readers—with white southerners as no exception. According to a 1991 survey by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, To Kill A Mockingbird was second only to the Bible in being “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives.[7]  Indeed, Harper Lee’s emotionally riveting and disturbing portrayal of racism in the Deep South led many whites to confront and question their own inherited racial prejudices. For example, political commentator and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, James Carville, who had spent his formative years growing up in the 1960s South, experienced a personal transformation after reading the novel. “I just knew, the minute I read it, that she was right and that I had been wrong,” he revealed in an interview.[8]  And if the hot-headed Carville, known as the ragin’ Cajun, could change his thinking, then surely southerners of a milder temperament had seen the light. In short, Harper Lee may have very well succeeded in reaching the heart and thereby awakening the southern white conscience, both individually and perhaps collectively—giving pause for genuine introspection rather than fuel for opposition.

There were, however, what one might consider more thoughtful criticisms to the novel in the South, relatively speaking. Some historians and others have pointed out that fiction like To Kill A Mockingbird serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes of poor whites. In his book, Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites, published by the University of Alabama Press, historian Wayne Flynt, for example, believes that the novel gives “poor whites no respite” and relies on “familiar stereotypes.” This is most vividly illustrated, explains Flynt, when Lee depicts the troublesome Ewells as “poor white trash,” giving a host of reasons to convince us of this beyond a shadow of a doubt.[9]  Indeed, most of the white characters in To Kill A Mockingbird, with the exception of the Finch family, and perhaps some of their open-minded neighbors and friends, such as Maudie Atkinson and Dolphus Raymond, are presented as poor, whether traditionally so or as a result of the depression, and blindly dominated by raw impulses, most notably their native prejudices against African Americans.

But therein lies the power of the story, in my opinion, to move white readers to question their inherited assumptions about race. As Scout Finch—the precocious nine-year-old narrator in To Kill A Mockingbird—is enveloped in the racism of the day, her developing mind is being impressed by the common negative stereotypes and racial expletives that she daily receives from her peers and some of the adults in her life. Yet her father Atticus intervenes and challenges those societal norms before she is conditioned to blindly accept the degradation of African Americans as an acceptable feature of the community in which she lives. So there is an interesting juxtaposition between the worlds in which this little girl moves—an external world dominated by the pressure to conform to the powerful, institutional racism of the day, and the other one, a personal, loving and safe world, where normative racist beliefs are challenged and rejected.

Is this done at the expense of poor southern whites? The answer is probably yes. Does this accurately reflect the racial climate of the 1930s South? While certainly not every white person during this period approved of or blindly accepted Jim Crow and racial stereotypes—with some even working to improve race relations—and although “tensions between the races eased somewhat during the ‘thirties” as both whites and blacks grappled with the Great Depression,[10] anti-black racism was unfortunately a common and rarely challenged feature of southern life then, and would remain so for more than twenty years from the time of the fictional setting in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Growing up black in Selma, Alabama during the Depression Era, J.L Chestnut described poignantly this rarely questioned, entrenched feature of southern life when he wrote:

“If you were black, the significance of race wasn’t something you suddenly discovered. It wasn’t even something you had to be told. It was something you just grew up knowing, something almost instinctual…It was just the way things were, and folk accommodated themselves to it”[11]

And Harper Lee, I believe, vividly captured in her novel this seemingly instinctual understanding of race—“just the way things were”—that Chestnut experienced during his early childhood in 1930s Selma. Southern whites, inevitably, unfortunately, but realistically come out as the purveyors of this system of domination, even if it was only by the blind acquiescence of most white people—in both To Kill A Mockingbird and the real-life South of the 1930s—who simply accepted without question the unjust system of southern race relations passed on to them.

I want to point out, however, that African Americans did not always accommodate themselves to Jim Crow and racial injustice during the Depression Era. One of the criticisms of To Kill A Mockingbird is that Maycomb, Alabama blacks are presented as a faceless group and portrayed as simply passive victims of racial discrimination. But African Americans sometimes protested the racism of the day both overtly, as when they marched on Washington, DC to protest of the infamous Scottsboro case in which nine young black men were falsely charged with raping a white woman, and in more subtle ways, such as refusing to give deference to whites and by joining activist organizations such as the NAACP—including the NAACP in Alabama which during the 1920s and 30s experienced unprecedented growth.[12]

The most consistent and enduring as well as impassioned opposition to this controversial novel, however, has come from African American and African Canadian teachers, leaders, school board members, organizations, parents and students. Beginning in the 1970s and 80s, overt challenges grew with such frequency that by the 1990s and here in the first decade of the twenty-first century opposition can be found almost everywhere.

One of the earliest of these heated challenges came in 1981 when black parents fervently worked to ban To Kill A Mockingbird in the Warren, Indiana Township schools because they felt it did “psychological damage to the positive integration process” and “represent[ed] institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” Since then, the onslaught of challenges to the novel in the classroom and to its stage adaptation in high school drama departments emerged in school districts all over the U.S. and Canada, including in Normal, Illinois; Kansas City, Missouri; Santa Cruz, California; Muskogee, Oklahoma; Anchorage, Alaska; and Nova Scotia, Canada. These heated challenges revolved around racial expletives and themes, particularly the “N” word—used 48 times in the novel according to one protest survey—and other demeaning racial language and references deemed offensive.[13]

My initial response to all of these challenges and efforts to ban To Kill A Mockingbird was, firstly, utter shock that such a significant piece of ‘conscience awakening’ American literature could be the recipient of such individual and organized opposition and protest. And next, I felt disdain for any attempts to censor literature, or any information, along with pity for those who were so fearful of different ideas and experiences that they believed they had a right to tell the rest of us what was appropriate or inappropriate literature. I felt that what we was dealing with here were something akin to the “memory hole” from George Orwell’s 1984, where concepts, people and words are sent into oblivion.

After all, book banning and censoring were nothing new and seemed to always reveal ignorance, superstition and fear—indeed, were not book censors simply dogged reactionaries to truth and progress? The Catholic Church, for example, had made it their professional duty to officially censor books in their infamous List or Index of Prohibited Books, including groundbreaking scientific texts, sometimes with the penalty of ostracism, torture or death for those who violated Rome’s censorship edicts. These included Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, a then controversial book that proposed the kooky idea that the Earth moved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. Indeed, the church got so fed up with this unorthodox idea, that when one of its greatest proponents, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, added to his defense of the revolving Earth theory his disagreement with sacred church doctrines, he was burned at the stake.[14]

Totalitarian and fascist regimes have also made it a common practice to ban and censor books and information, including holding book-burning celebrations. I found one interesting picture of impeccably dressed Nazi officers, for example, walking down the steps of a Gothic-style library, looking calm and friendly, with their arms full of books on the way to the fire. Ironically, it was a German-Jewish playwright and poet over a hundred years earlier, Heinrich Heine, whose fictional character responded to the burning of the Koran by warning, “The burning is but a prologue: where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too,” an eerily prophetic warning that played out as the Nazi’s went from burning books in 1930s Germany, including Heine’s books, to human beings during the dreadful Holocaust (incidentally, a century earlier, Heine’s books were also included on the Catholic church’s List of Prohibited Books). [15]

And democratic societies are not immune to censorship and the manipulation of information. American news, for example, revolves around a restricted discourse and narrow interpretation of ideas and world affairs, and is habitually quick to exclude or dismiss alternative opinions, yet still often parades under the universal banner of “fair and balanced” or “world coverage.” Advertisers, political commentators, new analysts and corporations feed us a daily diet—often fear-based—of their own interpretive analysis of what we are seeing and hearing on their carefully regulated and sponsored news, commercials and public affairs programs. So subtle is this form of information manipulation that most of us are not even aware that it is taking place. It certainly goes over my head sometimes.

While researching this talk, however, I was perhaps most surprised to discover that not only do books daily come under fire from those that feel their worldview is being threatened or challenged, such as the always troublesome Catcher in the Rye—the thorn of all thorns for the moral literary police—but that book burnings are today more common in the U.S. than I ever realized. The Harry Potter books, for example, have been burned in ceremonial purges all over the U.S. In Greenville, Michigan in 2003, several members of a church burned not only Harry Potter books, but also the Book of Mormon, non-King James version Bibles and strangely enough, a Shania Twain album.[16]

Yet despite all of this disturbing book censorship and bizarre burnings, I still had a nagging feeling that perhaps I should take a closer look at African American and Canadian opposition of To Kill A Mockingbird, particularly since black junior high and high school students have often expressed deep concerns over the novel’s racial themes and language. As one significant study points out, “Many students of African heritage finds the experience of taking up To Kill A Mockingbird in class a troubling one.”[17] Plus, it may be worthwhile, I thought, to take the advice of Atticus Finch seriously—advice that makes him one of the most endearing fictional characters of all time—when he famously said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”[18] Excellent advice Atticus!

While my own biases prompt me to dismiss most of the opposition to Harper Lee’s novel as fear-based and reactionary—something I can live with—I think that there may be legitimate reasons on the part of African Americans and Canadians to have To Kill A Mockingbird removed from classroom use. The most often cited concern revolves around the use of the “N” word within the text, as mentioned a minute ago, usually associated with a further degrading and devaluing reference to blacks such as stupid, worthless, deserving of death by lynching or shooting, dogs and trash. For example, the cantankerous old Mrs. Dubose tells Jem Finch, “Your father’s no better than the “N” and trash he works for!”[19]

Now from a white perspective that may seem to be no big deal—it was the regional language of the time period and Lee is ultimately condemning such behavior. Moreover, it is easy for white readers to take comfort in the fact that the central characters disapprove of the way African Americans are treated and subsequently they are led to see an antiracist message in the novel. White students can moreover distance themselves from such language on a personal level. But try to imagine a young black freshman student in a mostly white classroom, surrounded by his or her peers, as To Kill A Mockingbird is being read and discussed out loud. For such a young student, this language has a powerfully and embarrassingly negative connotation, with attention, in most cases, inevitably drawn towards them when such racial expletives and negative references are read. For some, it becomes a heavy burden to bear. One real-life student named Bob, for example, recalled the discomfort he felt when the novel was read out loud in his freshman English class: “The reaction from kids, right, they look straight at you … they keep looking at you.” Another black female student remembered how she felt like “shrinking … like leaving the class.” Yet another student, Chris, explained how his teacher would become coy and peer at him every time a racial word or reference was mentioned. And one young lady, Jocelyn, recalled how certain racist and negative references in the novel made her cry in class.[20]

I was perhaps most inspired to “climb in the skin” of the novel’s opponents after reading the story of an African American eighth-grade student at Stanford Middle School in Durham, North Carolina named Garvey Jackson. After students took turns reading the book aloud in his class one day, Garvey felt very embarrassed and ultimately offended by the use of the “N” word, something he did not expect to hear. “Just to put it simple, I felt uncomfortable,” explained the thirteen-year-old.[21]

Garvey suppressed his displeasure over the novel until he happened to see a television documentary about the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina that took place during the Civil Rights Era, incidentally just a few months before the original release of To Kill A Mockingbird. Immediately inspired by the students courage and determination, Garvey enlisted the help of his family to assist him in launching a protest campaign against the use of the novel in the classroom at Stanford Middle School. Supported by his parents, he went to school wearing a t-shirt created by his sister covered in racial phrases from the book to protest the usage of the language in the classroom readings.[22]

When he was told to cover up his shirt, Garvey responded, “If it’s good enough for the book, it’s good enough for the shirt.” The next week Garvey handed out a letter to his classmates “explaining that the book offends him, and why it shouldn’t be used.” A few days later, right before his class watched the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird, the young activist attempted to pass out armbands to his classmates in protest. Although Garvey was not successful in having the book banned, his parents later held a mock public funeral for the novel, burying it in a cemetery as a “form of nonviolent protest,” in the words of Garvey’s father.[23]

Garvey’s passionate protest seems to be more or less representative of the feelings many African Americans and Canadians share about the novel, including some NAACP branches around the country. One study found that “students of African heritage” in Ontario schools “were almost unanimous in their condemnation” of To Kill A Mockingbird. And a survey conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that there were 691 references to the novel at eight Ivy League college websites, with 400 at the University of Pennsylvania alone, and just one reference to the book at the websites of two of the most prominent historically black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman.[24]

Indeed, there appears to be a striking difference between the way many whites and blacks perceive and interpret To Kill A Mockingbird. I make no bones about the fact that I enjoy this book and the movie adaptation. But I am white. I have not experienced racial discrimination, historically and today, with all of its personally degrading and hateful slurs, language, posturing, devaluation and hurtful behavior—all aspects of racism powerfully and explicitly portrayed in Harper Lee’s novel. Even black students who may not have experienced these things on a daily basis, or do not have a conscious awareness of the complete historical background of Jim Crow, are nevertheless suddenly thrust into assuming this weighty burden with little or no preparation as the novel is read out loud in class.

With all considered, how do we preserve this amazing work of literature in our schools and at the same time assure that the dignity of black students offended by its racial language and themes is respected? Perhaps you all have some ideas. I can only toss out a few suggestions that may or may not be feasible, or even wise. First, maybe To Kill A Mockingbird should be adapted to history rather than English curriculums in high schools. Then the book could be read, examined and discussed as not only a literary work but also as an historical text of the Jim Crow Era, along with other supplemental historical materials. This would place the book’s intense racial themes and language within a larger context that could possibly mitigate the singularly emotionally charged racial rhetoric that comes from reading the novel alone.[25] Another suggestion is that To Kill A Mockingbird should not even be required reading in 9th-grade English classes, but instead used only in the curriculums of 11th or 12th-grade English classes, or perhaps college freshman English. This would allow students to approach the novel with more maturity and confidence, along with a better understanding of the historical background.

And perhaps we should face up to the reality that this “conscience awakening” literature is directed at or speaks to the white conscience. In that regard, paradoxically, and as strange as this may sound, we may be able to view To Kill A Mockingbird as an indirect form of black protest written by a white writer—a coming of age novel during the turbulent Civil Rights Era—that enabled the white conscience to see and feel through its fictional characters and the world in which they move the naked injustice, shame and horror of racial prejudice. And as readers in the past have been inspired to examine their own racial prejudice, perhaps the novel can help us today to take a deep look at the fears that still separate us from each other—everything from efforts to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., to the stereotyping of Muslims and fear of immigrants in the media, to all of the apocalyptic visions in pop culture that trumpet the end of the world simply because we cannot imagine recreating together something better in a world full of seemingly inevitable chaos.

Finally, I think we can imaginatively see this novel as reflective of the black moral commitment to nonviolence in the civil rights struggle. Besides the fact that Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout not to physically fight under any circumstance, and to put herself in the skin of others—even if they should happen to provoke her short temper—there is a vivid scene in the movie adaptation that captures Atticus’s passionate dedication to nonviolence. In this climatic scene near the end of the movie, a drunken Bob Ewell confronts Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, in Tom Robinson’s yard. As Peck walks up to Ewell, the camera films the scene in such a way that as he gets closer he gets bigger. Indeed, once he gets within a few feet of Ewell, Peck seems like a giant, with overly broad shoulders and an intense look on his face. We are immediately aware that with one swipe he could crush the bullying Ewell. And when Ewell spits in Peck’s face, everything stops, and we wait—and perhaps hope—to see if in this one instance he will violate his own ethics and strike back. After all, he not only has a physical advantage over Ewell, but he has more than enough justification to let the antagonist have it—Ewell had raped and abused his own daughter and then pinned the crime on an innocent man, Tom Robinson, which ultimately led to Robinson’s death. But Peck slowly pulls out a handkerchief, wipes the spit from his face, walks around Ewell, gets in his car and without a word, he drives away.[26] While Harper Lee was writing To Kill A Mockingbird, African Americans were being spit on by Bob Ewells, both literally and figuratively, all over the South, and they too chose not to physically strike back. Is it possible to see Atticus Finch as a composite of these brave souls who were engaging Jim Crow and the ugly racism of the day with the power of their hearts rather than their fists? I think so, but the reader or viewer must ultimately decide.

This all may not answer the question of how we preserve this novel and at the same time assure that the dignity of black students is respected, but if we take the novel’s central theme seriously—putting ourselves in the “skin” of others—then maybe we can genuinely find a way to make the text more universally meaningful.

Works Cited by the Author
[1]Claudia Durst Johnson, To Kill A Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 13, 15; American Library Association, Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (;

Alice Hackett and James Burke, Eighty Years of Best Sellers (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1977), 25-75.

[2]Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2006), 254-55.

[3]American Library Association, Banned and/or Challenged Books: “To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee” ( reasonsbanned.htm); Joshua Partlow, “School Board Goals Draw Impassioned Opposition,” Washington Post, October 14, 2004.

[4]Jill P. May, “Censors as Critics: To Kill A Mockingbird as Case Study,” in Cross-Culturalism in Children’s Literature: Selected Papers from the Children’s Literature Association (New York: Pace University Press, 1988), 6. Also see, Johnson, 14-15.

[5]Dionne Walker, “Pioneer of interracial marriage looks back,” USA Today, unspecified date, 2007 (

[6]“To Kill A Mockingbird,” Wikipedia ( Kill_a_Mockingbird); Richard Beach and James Marshall, Teaching Literature in Secondary Schools (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 153.

[7]Survey quoted in Johnson, 14.

[8]Gary Wills, “From the Campaign Trail: Clinton’s Hell Raiser,” New Yorker (October 1992), 93.

[9]Wayne Flynt, Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 214-215.

[10]C, Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 118.

[11]J.L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass, Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, Jr.—Politics and Power in a Small American Town (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 21, 22.

[12]Michael, V. Uschan, The Scottsboro Case (New York: Garth Stevens Publishing, Inc., 2004), 30-32; Kevern Verney, “Long is The Way and Hard: The NAACP in Alabama, 1913-1945,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, NA, Atlanta, Georgia, September 26, 2006.

Also, during the period when NAACP branches were unfolding and growing in the South, Gunnar Myrdal observed, “If all the difficulties under which a Negro protest movement has to work in the South are remembered, it is rather remarkable, in the final analysis, that the NAACP has been able to keep up and slowly build out its network of branches in the region, and that several of the Southern branches have been so relatively active … the great majority … back its program,” An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1944), 825-26.

[13]American Library Association, Banned and/or Challenged Books: “To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee” ( reasonsbanned.htm)); “Huck Finn, Mockingbird Censored,” Education Reporter, December 2003: 215; “A proposal regarding the usage of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird,” Nova Scotia, quoted in Isaac Saney, “The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird,” Race & Class: A Journal for Black and Third World Liberation 45:1 (July-September, 2003), 100; and Doris Betts, “The Mockingbird’s Throat: A Personal Reflection,” in Alice Hall Petry, ed., On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 139.

[14] Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 2; Kenneth J. Atchity, ed., The Renaissance Reader (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996) 253.

[15]“Book Banning,” May 27, 2007, The Alien Next Door, Musings of Nina Munteanu, SF writer and Ecologist (http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot. com/2007_05_01_archive.html). This is an interesting web site that highlights historical and contemporary efforts to ban and burn books. Also, see Philip Kossoff, Valiant Heart: A Biography of Heinrich Heine (New York: Cornwell Books, 1983).

[16]“Community responds to book burning,” The Detroit News, August 7, 2003.

[17]James Ryan, Race and Ethnicity in Multi-Ethnic Schools (Ontario: Multilingual Ltd., 1999), 134.

[18]Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (New York: Warner Brothers Inc., 1982) 30. Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie adaptation, was named the greatest American hero in film of the twentieth century by the American Film Institute. See “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains,”

[19]Lee, 102.

[20]These student testimonials are all taken from Ryan, 134.

[21]Durham Herald-Sun, February 15, 2007, Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, Censorship Debate, Schools (

[22]Ibid. For an excellent account and scholarly treatment of the Greensboro sit-ins, and other sit-ins throughout the South, see Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984),188-228.

[23]Ibid. For other recent and active challenges of To Kill A Mockingbird, see Daniel de Vise, “Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context,” Washington Post, July 13, 2007; Brian Bauld, “Don’t Kill the Mockingbird,” Halifax Herald Limited, May 9, 2002; and Saney, 99-105.

[24]Ryan, 134; Kevin Uhrich, “Killing Mockingbirds: Parents, NAACP say racially insensitive language in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ send the wrong message to today’s children,” Pasadena Weekly, March 16, 2006; “The Staying Power of To Kill A Mockingbird,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Latest News, August 3, 2006.

[25]There have been some efforts to prepare students for books such as To Kill A Mockingbird in English classes by placing the racially charged themes and language within a “contextual period” before the classroom readings begin. But even these can stir up controversy. See “Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context,” Washington Post, July 13, 2007.

[26]Alan J. Pakula, prod., Robert Mulligan, dir., To Kill A Mockingbird (Hollywood, CA: Universal Pictures, 1962).


Banned Book Review: The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian

A Note from the Blog Editor
by Catherine H. Armstrong

As we continue our Celebration of Banned Books Week 2012, we bring you the following review of  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.  *This book was originally challenged in Crook County, Oregon when a parent copied several pages from the book and presented them to the school board.  The pages depicted masturbation.  Upon reading the content out of context, the school board immediately took steps to remove the book from the school district’s library shelves.

Upon receiving this decision, the Crook County High School Principal responded by stating the following:

“I’ve been directed by the board to pull the book, and I will comply with their directive, but I respectfully disagree with what they are doing. It’s a slippery slope if you take one or two pages out of context; I mean ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about two teenagers who are having a relationship. It’s a dangerous precedent”.

For more information about this book and the attempts to challenge and ban it from bookshelves, you can use this link.

*Information cited was obtained from the website.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
A Review by Gail Manahan

Okay. So imagine this. You are born with hydrocephalus – water on the brain – and a really HUGE head. At six months old, you survive surgery that vacuums the excess water out of your brain, but leaves you with seizures, one eye that’s near-sighted, one that’s far sighted, and ten extra teeth. Yes, TEN. You grow into a very short, skinny body with a HUGE head, feet, and hands; you stutter and lisp. Are you in for trouble? Yes, you are. It gets worse. You are an Indian. A reservation Indian. On the Spokane Indian reservation. An Indian born into generations of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and despair. As a kid, you belong to the Black Eye of the Month Club because the other kids see you as a “retard” that needs to be put in his place. You have exactly one friend; well, two – one is your dog, Oscar, and the other is Rowdy – a kid born in the same hospital and on the same day as you and who is so angry and mean that everyone else is afraid of him. Thank god for Rowdy. You’d be dead by now if he didn’t protect you and smash up every kid that picks on you. Even so, you spend a lot of time in your bedroom drawing cartoons because it’s safer. Pictures speak a thousand words and you want to be heard.

Thus begins the first person narrative of our protagonist, Arnold Spirit Jr. aka Junior – a moniker so common locally that if you step into a rez bar and holler “Hey, Junior,” fifteen guys would turn around.  Junior is fourteen and beginning his freshman year of high school in his hometown Wellpinit, Washington. His only claim to fame is his belief that he’d be the top draft pick of the Professional Masturbators League, if there were one; he’s ambidextrous.  His older sister, Mary Runs Away, bright and beloved by her family, has been holed up in the basement for the past seven years since she graduated from high school, unable, it seems, to make a move. Junior’s father is a kind, mostly decent alcoholic who dreamed of being a jazz musician. His mother aspired to college and teaching.  He calls her a “human tape recorder” – a voracious reader with an expansive memory. And his grandmother, tolerant and well-loved by the thousands of Indians that she has met in her years of attending powwows across the country, asks forgiveness of the person responsible for her death. But… no one ever leaves the reservation – not for education or another life.

Like all the other reservation Indians, the Spirit’s are poor. There often isn’t enough food in the house and gas for the car. But the worst part about being poor, according to Arnold aka Junior, isn’t the lack of food or gas, the occasional parental neglect, or the Safeway tennis shoes and the Kmart jeans; it’s the lack of hope. Spurred on by his guilt-ridden Anglo geometry teacher who recognizes Arnold’s talents and beseeches him to leave the reservation, Arnold asks to transfer to Reardon, a town off the rez where he’ll be the only Indian in school. Because if he doesn’t go now, he knows he never will.

So begins Arnold’s new life – one foot in the Indian world by night and the other in the white world by day. The rez Indians see him as a traitor to the tribe – an apple – red on the outside, white on the inside. He’s no longer welcome. And how can he make inroads in the all-white school when, after the first day or two, he is pretty much ignored?  Although the deck seems stacked against Arnold Spirit Jr., he has moxie to spare. Surprising things happen. The novel is a roller-coaster ride of angst, grief, hilarity, Anglo-bashing, and a keen take on racism of various forms. If you tend toward the empathic, keep the tissues close by. But be prepared to snort with laughter before you finish drying your eyes.

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library.