The Air Between Us
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The Air Between Us

3.5 20
by Deborah Johnson
     
 

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Revere, Mississippi, with its population of "20,000 and sinking," is not unlike most Southern towns in the 1960s. Blacks live on one side of town and whites on the other. The two rarely mix. Or so everyone believes. But the truth is brought to the forefront when Critter, who is only ten, black and barely tall enough to see over the dashboard, drives Billy Ray—

Overview

Revere, Mississippi, with its population of "20,000 and sinking," is not unlike most Southern towns in the 1960s. Blacks live on one side of town and whites on the other. The two rarely mix. Or so everyone believes. But the truth is brought to the forefront when Critter, who is only ten, black and barely tall enough to see over the dashboard, drives Billy Ray—wounded in a suspicious hunting accident—to the segregated Doctor's Hospital. Dr. Cooper Connelly, the town's most high-profile resident, assures Billy Ray's family he'll be fine. He dies, however, and most people assume it is just a typical hunting accident—until the sheriff orders an investigation.

Suddenly the connections between white and black are revealed to be deeper than anyone expects, which makes the town's struggle with integration that much more complicated and consuming. Dr. Connelly takes an unexpectedly progressive view toward integration; the esteemed Dr. Reese Jackson, who is so prominent that even Ebony has profiled him, tries to stay above the fray. At times, it seems the town's only distraction is the racially ambiguous Madame Melba, a fortune-teller and "voyeur" with a past.

With endearing, fully realized characters and a mystery that will keep readers guessing until the final page, The Air Between Us will keep you engrossed until the end.

Editorial Reviews

Amy Alexander
Johnson offers a colorful, well-drawn story …Johnson's omniscient narrator gracefully glides through the tangle of associations that exist between the black residents and those who inhabit Revere's "white" side. Told in folksy language and down-home idioms that only occasionally veer into corn pone, this enjoyable story evokes a world once hidden in plain sight, and the inevitability of its end.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In Johnson's vivid debut, Revere, Miss., is a 1966 small town teetering on the brink of integration. Willie B. Tate Jr., a 10-year-old black boy known as "Critter," drives poor white man Billy Ray Puckett to the whites-only emergency room after Billy Ray has a hunting accident. Caught up in the middle of the fallout after Billy Ray's unexpected death is Dr. Cooper Connelly, a prominent white doctor who serves on the school board and has controversial prointegration views. Cooper is a man with secrets, including why he keeps company with Madame Melba Obrensky, a "raceless" woman with a mysterious past who manages to keep herself well-apprised of all sides of the town's doings. Melba happens to be the next-door neighbor of Dr. Reese Jackson, a respected black physician who has managed to cross the race barrier and establish his practice on Main Street. As the heat of the school board meetings about integration and of the investigation into Billy Ray's death increase, the atmosphere becomes explosive. Johnson tries to squeeze too much out of the limited plot, but compelling character studies keep pages turning. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Johnson's novel introduces the small Southern city of Revere, MS, during the civil rights era. Most whites are outraged that the federal government plans to integrate the public schools, and some are campaigning to use public funds to construct segregated private academies. Blacks, meanwhile, want the resources integration promises but fear violent retribution if efforts succeed. At the heart of the story are two physicians, African American Reese Jackson and Caucasian Cooper Connelly. Unfortunately, both are stereotypes. Worse, other characters are clichés, from a reformed prostitute with a heart of gold to a materialistic Southern belle who marries Connelly. Sophisticated readers will likely find this-and the cheery ending-cloying. Nonetheless, the book might be of interest to teenage readers and their instructors because it provides a simplified history of the 1960s, zeroing in on the race and class hatred that divided communities throughout the South. In addition, it assesses violence as a tactic and asks if its use is ever justified, a theme that will have resonance in classrooms.
—Eleanor J. Bader

School Library Journal

In Johnson's vivid debut, Revere, Miss., is a 1966 small town teetering on the brink of integration. Willie B. Tate Jr., a 10-year-old black boy known as "Critter," drives poor white man Billy Ray Puckett to the whites-only emergency room after Billy Ray has a hunting accident. Caught up in the middle of the fallout after Billy Ray's unexpected death is Dr. Cooper Connelly, a prominent white doctor who serves on the school board and has controversial prointegration views. Cooper is a man with secrets, including why he keeps company with Madame Melba Obrensky, a "raceless" woman with a mysterious past who manages to keep herself well-apprised of all sides of the town's doings. Melba happens to be the next-door neighbor of Dr. Reese Jackson, a respected black physician who has managed to cross the race barrier and establish his practice on Main Street. As the heat of the school board meetings about integration and of the investigation into Billy Ray's death increase, the atmosphere becomes explosive. Johnson tries to squeeze too much out of the limited plot, but compelling character studies keep pages turning. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A disarmingly sanguine first novel about the citizens, black and white, of a small Mississippi town as they prepare for the coming integration of their schools in 1966. Cooper Connelly, a reformed alcoholic trapped in an unhappy marriage, runs Revere's private hospital for whites. His father, a rich, segregationist state legislator, has installed Cooper as head of the local school board; but recognizing the coming of change, Cooper not so secretly welcomes the federally mandated integration of Revere's black and white schools. Cooper's professional counterpart is Reese Jackson, who runs the local black clinic. Born into poverty, the brilliant doctor remains bitter toward whites, despite his increasing wealth and his status as a god among his black patients. Spencer is particularly proud of his beautiful, cultured wife Deanie, who has decorated their antebellum home with exquisite taste and who dresses with understated elan. But their marriage strains under Deanie's guilt at having injured their ten-year-old son Skippy in a car accident when he was a toddler, leaving him with a maimed leg. Deanie's best friend is her neighbor Madame Melba. A fortune-teller from New Orleans who keeps her race ambiguous for professional reasons, Melba develops a surprising friendship with Cooper. Meanwhile, a routine investigation into the death of a white pulp worker treated in Cooper's hospital for a gunshot wound raises public and deeply private questions about guilt and responsibility. When a local black minister is shot after an attempted restaurant sit-in, white citizens come to his support. Then Cooper is also shot, but for motives of personal vengeance, not race. Johnson has an unfortunate tendencyto tease the reader with hints before revealing information about plot or characters, but to her credit, her empathy is so deep and evenhanded that her own racial identity remains a mystery. In this engaging if oddly benign and probably revisionist take on the civil-rights upheaval, Mississippians cross racial lines with ease. Agent: Harvey Klinger/Harvey Klinger Inc.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061255588
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
03/24/2009
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,153,536
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Air Between Us
A Novel

Chapter One

The battered 1952 Ford Pickup jolted against the curb, bouncing the driver just high enough so you could see the tip of his head, making him look for all the world like a teeny ghost, a low-riding specter. The sight froze the two men—Charlie Symonds and Butter Bob Latham, standing at the coloreds-only emergency-room entrance to Doctors Hospital—stock-still. They watched a cloud of dust cover the truck as it started bumping its way onto the gravel-rock parking lot. Amazed, the men continued to stare as the pickup emerged from the gritty fog and honed in on the door right behind them. The head did not bob into view again, and for an instant each man thought he'd imagined it. This false comfort did not last long. The truck was there, and it was coming straight for them. Their minds told them to dive for cover and quickly, but their bodies were locked in place, like the gears of a car. Both men thought they were dead for sure.

The truck jerked to a halt—"three feet from my kneecap," as Charlie would spend his winter down at Carter's One-Stop Barber Shop telling anybody who cared to listen—"and that truck must have been coming fifty miles an hour if it was comin' at all. You can bet I saw them Pearly Gates."

Thus this first of many strange events that were to occur that autumn in the town of Revere, Mississippi—population twenty thousand and diminishing rapidly—naturally became famous. With each telling, the truck's speed increased and the distance to Charlie's kneecap decreased until one was up to sixty and the other down to no more than twoinches—one, if Charlie had spent time in some juke joint the night before. Within a matter of days, most everybody in Revere had heard the tale at least once. No one questioned if that old rattle-trap truck could even have reached sixty miles an hour, which it could not have. Instead the Reverites all nodded, impressed and sobered by Charlie's choice of biblical allusion. This was later, after all, and right then he wasn't thinking about any implications whatsoever, other than those that had to do with protecting his life from destruction.

The truck stopped so thoroughly that a puff of dust-following billowed around it. Ghostlike. It was seriously dawning on Charlie's mind that he should be hightailing it on out of there and right now. The man remembered that quick glance of bobbing head, and he remembered how thoroughly it had disappeared again. Beside him, Butter Bob had already started a slow turn toward the driveway. Then, through the haze, both men heard the driver's door crank open, heard a thud and the paddle of small, bare feet running toward them along the packed earth. Stirring up the dust.

The owner of the feet pulled up short. Coughed. Tried to speak, coughed again. The men couldn't tell if it was the excitement or the dust. Both black men—strikingly dark in their white, emergency-room uniforms—rushed forward, one to the truck, the other to the child. Charlie Symonds, the older of the two, bent down eye to eye with the youngster. The kid looked to him to be about ten. No wonder they hadn't seen him over the wheel. Charlie shook his head.

"Boy, what you doing driving this—"

Before he could finish, he heard Butter Bob's whistle and then his carefully articulated, "Shit."

Charlie Symonds was an elder deacon at the Mount Union Missionary Baptist Church and did not normally feel at liberty to use such language; but in the context of telling a real story, like being in court, you felt called upon to present only the unvarnished truth. And the unvarnished truth was that he took a certain naughty pleasure in shocking and eliciting gasps from whatever womenfolk happened to be hearing him. "Pardon me, ladies," he would say as an aside when he retold his tale again and again, "but you all know what kind of man Butter Bob Latham is, as well as I do—one of them Latham men from over Brooksville—and you know he really is capable of using such language."

Everybody could agree with him on that.

Now, however, in this run-down driveway, Charlie stared at the boy jiggling around in front of him, then glanced over at Butter sidling away from the truck. Charlie got up very, very slowly. He sure did not like the sound of that one word, "Shit." This part, of course, would be left out of the eventual tale telling at Carter's, but this was 1966 and this was Mississippi, and no God-fearing, right-thinking, common-sense-having black man wanted to be dealing with any kind of "shit" after sundown.

"It's Mr. Billy Ray. He done shot himself!"

The boy had finally recovered his breath, and his words got Charlie's immediate attention. He hurtled over to the truck, pushing burly Butter Bob aside like a feather.

"Oh, my God."

Blood was everywhere: seeping from a pale white man slumped over in the cut-up passenger seat, dripping down onto the running board, soaking into the dirt.

"I got him here as quick as I could. His hunt stand done fall down, and the gun went off. Shot a hole right through him. I tried to tell him he was doing it all wrong. He don't read, you know. None of them Pucketts do, except maybe Miss Ruth Ann. A little. I tried to tell him, but he said . . . Well, I don't want to tell you what he said, but now he's bleeding himself to death." The boy was babbling. Charlie could not have shut him up if he'd wanted to.

"Blood or no blood, he can't come in here. No way. No, sir." Charlie Symonds stepped back so smartly that he almost trampled the boy, who'd come up close behind him. "You gotta get this man on over to the other side of the building. This is the entrance to the coloreds-only emergency room—cain't you read?—and ain't no white folks can come in this way. We cain't touch 'em. I'm not gonna do it."

The Air Between Us
A Novel
. Copyright (c) by Deborah Johnson . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Deborah Johnson now lives and works in Columbus, Mississippi, after residing for many years in Italy.

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Air Between Us 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
MimiSC More than 1 year ago
Deborah Johnson's book has managed to illustrate the complexity of human relationships. One set of characters meet as youngsters. The boys' friendship, beginning during the innocence of youth, develops into a co-dependent relationship benefitting both through their school days and well into their adult lives. Their common interests, personal needs and professional aspirations are conjoined ~ on an intellectual and social level. What appears to be mutual respect and reciprocity is fueled by racial tension and resentment. Though both have gained personally and professionally by virtue of their relationship, in a twist of fate they find themselves at odds with, and in need of, one another in order to survive. Another set of characters daily interactions have the appearance of female commraderie, but their interest in one anther stems from experiences and a past much darker than that that is revealed by the content of their social discourse. A third set of characters, introduced at the beginning of the story, are two youngsters whose lives are plagued with the complications of race, incest and family pride. Ms. Johnson manages to hold the reader's interest in these two youngsters, weaving throughout the story their tragic experiences, their pathetic lives, their suffering and ~ finally ~ their redemption, revealing their families deepest shameful secrets at the climax of the story. Complex social and personal issues that fracture the human experience on earth are peppered throughout this story ... a reminder to each of us that one day spent in the shoes of a fellow human being is enough to keep our judgment of others, and their actions, fully in check. A GREAT book for book clubs everywhere!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everyone knows their place in Revere, MI, in the 1960's, but those practices are being challenged as the Federal Courts threaten to integrate the schools in the South. A poor white man, nobody's friend, has fallen on his own gun and is found by his 10-year old black neighbor, Critter, shot and bleeding. Critter drives him 30 miles in his father's rickety old truck to the only hospital in the town and right up to the "blacks only" entrance, because he knows he will get no attention at the other entrance and might even find himself in big trouble. He is quickly sent to that entrance, however, as noone at the rear entrance has the nerve to touch a white man, much less move him and treat his wounds. At the front entrance, Critter is met with all the attention. Only when Dr. Connelly, the son of the owner of this private hospital, notices Critter and his passenger does anything happen, and then Critter is mostly shoved aside - even though he wants to tell them that something doesn't seem right. Dr. Connelly's wife is perfect, his home is regularly featured in the local newspaper, and his father is a much-admired Congressman and highly-vocal segregationist as well as owner of the private hospital that serves Revere. With the government threatening integration of the schools and government funds going towards the building of a local public hospital, the Connelly family is feeling the threat of change, and Papa Connelly wants none of it. Dr. Reese Jackson and his wife, Deany, live in a beautiful big home, though not as big as Dr. Connelly's, on their side of town and just next door to her best friend, Melba. Melba, used to have other kinds of clients, but now she has a sign outside her little cottage advertising her business as a spiritualist. With her blue eyes and flaming hair she doesn't seem to fit in, but nobody's asking which part of town she really belongs in. Then the poor white man unexpectedly dies and suddenly some of those unexplained questions start to come out. Shots ring out and people on both sides of issues are targets. And as lives are turned upside down we learn more about all the individuals we thought we knew and might be surprised at who they really are.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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The characters were colorful and vivid. The secrets of each character kept me turning the pages.
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senated More than 1 year ago
A believable and intriguing story that brings into question the "modernization" of the south in the 1960's as it pertains to race, education, social mores, and even medical ethics. Easy to read and easy to follow with interesting yet uncomplicated characters.
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prettybrowneyes More than 1 year ago
Sometimes I limit myself to a certain number of Southern fiction books, but this novel was a four-star read. The reason I gave it four stars was because the plot was really catchy, but the exterior background in the story was a little off the edge.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was unable to open this book and read it.