The story opens in early 1959, where the governor of Virginia has kept schools closed for months to avoid the desegregation of the school system in his state. On the first day school opens, ten black students register at a previously whites-only high school and we are shown the horrifying abuse they are subjected to. Over the course of the story, we are shown the bullying and violence through the eyes of Sarah, a black girl who is joining the school and Linda, a white girl from a staunchly segregationist background.
I felt incredibly sorry for Sarah and the predicament she found herself in. On the one hand, she had her parents and the NAACP pushing her like anything to join Jefferson High School, controlling her life and trying to make her the poster girl for desegregation, and on the other hand she was being bullied and abused on a daily basis by her racist classmates. Would I have been brave enough to do the same thing in her situation? I think I can answer, with absolute certainty, no!
I was glad the author pointed out Sarah’s doubts about joining Jefferson High School and didn’t just portray her as a crusading martyr, as she was a lot more relatable this way. I also found it interesting that while she believed in equality for everyone regardless of skin colour, the same beliefs didn’t apply to other minority groups. When she realises she has feelings for Linda, she considers it to be unnatural and disgusting and a sin. Similarly, she doesn’t seem to think that women should be afforded equal rights to men or that they are as intelligent as them. It’s weird - you just always assume that because someone believes in equal rights in one area, they’ll believe in equal rights for everyone but this wasn’t the case here.
I felt probably less sorry for Linda. She had obviously spent her life swallowing the segregationist propaganda she had been fed and I wished that she’d used her brain a bit more and formulated her own opinions. I was glad she changed her attitude somewhat as the book progressed, but I did wonder if her attitude would have changed so much if she hadn’t had feelings for Sarah.
Before I went into this book, I actually knew a little bit about desegregation as we covered the American civil rights movement in GCSE history, but it was interesting (in a horrifying way) to get more detail, so in this respect I really admire what the author was doing.
I think the main issue I had with this story was that I felt the plot felt a little flat and because this is such an issues-driven book, it didn’t allow me to connect with the characters as much as I’d have liked. The atmosphere in the school and also in the town is obviously very violent, but because the violence and abuse is constant, it eventually loses its tension and the plot falls down slightly in the face of the issues the author is highlighting.
I also didn’t feel that the romance between Linda and Sarah was very romantic. They obviously had feelings for each other and I was glad they didn’t just fall in instalove, but mostly the romance seemed to consist of them avoiding each other and having long internal monologues about how twisted and sinful they were. I get that this was a product of the times they were living in, but it did leave the romance feeling a bit overshadowed.
Overall, this was a thumbs-up. I really appreciate what the author was doing and while the plot wasn’t all I’d hoped it would I think it’s still a very important book.