From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Johnston (TheGhost of Nicholas Greebe), well known for her witty picture books, writes a compelling, sometimes harrowing coming-of-age story that explores racial tensions in small-town Tennessee during the early '50s. All his life, motherless David and the others in his family have longed to please his father, a doctor capable of such charm that "he could coax radishes to becoming roses on their way up through the soil." But David can't escape his father's hatred of "Negroes," in David's language, especially when his father bans his best friend from the house with a serious threat: "You ever let that nigger in, by God, I'll shoot him." Without drawing attention to itself or slowing readers down, the prose gracefully incorporates rich imagery ("It was an afternoon in January, and cold. The leaves on the oaks were brown and damp from the fog that crept along the ground, a cold live thing"), its delicacy sharpening the brutalities David witnesses as he grows from age nine to 13. Johnston expertly builds tension as a series of chilling events awakens David to the full horrors of his father's-and his neighbors'-actions. This novel stands well above others on the same topic for its author's refusal to sacrifice the humanity of any of her characters and her dedication to the complexity of their relationships. Ages 12-up. (Aug.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Patti Sylvester Spencer
As recent news focuses on race relations in Jena, Louisiana, veteran writer Johnston, who grew up in the South, shares a personal and thoroughly fictionalized poetic and painful story of life in a 1950s racist home. The author introduces prepubescent narrator David, his racist doctor father, and Malcolm, David's African American friend. Malcolm is banned from David's home: "Rule's real simple: you ever let that nigger in, by God, I'll shoot him," proclaims the doctor, portraying the unsettling, troubling hatred spewed by David's father, one grandmother, and many other characters, several of whom are active Klan members. David is innocent but not nanve, coming of age in an environment that he innately senses as inhumane. David's intellect and reasoning are evident in his attempts to use advanced vocabulary, his memorizing skeletal bones of the human body (demanded by his father), and his efforts to unravel mysteries of the frightening Klan. He ponders: How can a child love and respect a volatile, hate-filled parent? Johnston's use of metaphor and imagery surface surprisingly-joyously-amid hostility and hatred, when the two young friends role-play, explore nature, and challenge each other. Not all adult white characters project racism and violence; a caring uncle, a neighbor, and another grandmother provide compassionate leadership. Sad paradoxes compound when David encounters his father's black nanny and homeless Mister Swann's diminished dreams. The ending is as unsettling as the book's dark beginning but fits circumstances. Johnston does not apologize for the raw language, stating instead that it "reflects a way of thinking that has troubled me my whole life." Although perhaps no more"raw" than rap lyrics today, Johnston's powerful prose is far more thought provoking and poignant, especially in light of mock lynchings in the twenty-first century.
Set in the 1950’s-era South, this is not just a book about racial hatred, but also about relationships with parents who love you one minute and leave you emotionally bleeding the next. David Church’s daddy is a doctor, and he is determined that his son will get into the best schools and become one, too. To that end, he hangs a skeleton by the crib of the motherless child and begins drilling him on memorizing the bones as soon as he can talk. We join David from age 9, when he meets his best friend on Halloween night, to age 13 when his life changes irretrievably. The central problem is that because David is white and his friend Malcolm is black, Dr. Church forbids the friendship. David chooses to ignore the prohibition because Malcolm is his “heart-friend.” He believes they “could no more be separated than green from grass.” Even Dr. Church’s threat to shoot Malcolm if he ever sets foot in the house does not stop the boys. The prevailing racial intolerance will. When David publicly defends his friend in a confrontation with several white men, the threat to Malcolm’s life from the Klan escalates. Beyond the irrationality of his father’s treatment of Malcolm, David gradually realizes how hopes and dreams are stripped away from other African Americans in his town by their hostile treatment at the hands of whites. Based on her own family and experiences growing up, the author does not pull any punches in her presentation of heart-wrenching events and hard language. This is a riveting story which can facilitate understanding of the racial tensions that shaped this period in U.S. history. Readers will be able to identify with general issues of friendship and conflict with parents. Reviewer:Paula McMillen, Ph.D.
In 1951, 12-year-old David lives with his father and grandmother in the South. Pushed to be a doctor like his father, David resists buts plays along, and he and his father come to a testy arrangement in most things, including David's friendships. Unable to keep David from playing with his best friend Malcolm, David's father lays down a rule: "You ever let that nigger in [the house], by God, I'll shoot him." As David approaches his 13th birthday, he begins to understand the true horror of the connections between the KKK and his neighbors and family. Even as his friendship with Malcolm drifts, his own sense of the world grows, until the horrible night when turning 13 brings with it more than David ever banked on. The voice and setting here are fully realized and gripping. Even with scanty plot or narrative arc, this is a highly appealing and chilling read for history buffs and fans of historical fiction. (Historical fiction. 11-15)