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A powerful novel about growing up black on the World War II home front in the Jim Crow South.
Caleb lives in a world at war. War news is on everyone’s mind, and Caleb’s older brother, Randall, is likely to be sent overseas. The presence of German POWs in Caleb’s rural Georgia community is a constant reminder of what’s happening in Europe. Locked in a power struggle with his domineering father and fighting to keep both his temper and his self-respect in dealing with whites, ...
A powerful novel about growing up black on the World War II home front in the Jim Crow South.
Caleb lives in a world at war. War news is on everyone’s mind, and Caleb’s older brother, Randall, is likely to be sent overseas. The presence of German POWs in Caleb’s rural Georgia community is a constant reminder of what’s happening in Europe. Locked in a power struggle with his domineering father and fighting to keep both his temper and his self-respect in dealing with whites, Caleb finds his loyalties shifting and his certainties slipping away. This coming-of-age story, set in a time before the civil rights movement emerged, traces one young man’s growing commitment to justice and to the courage needed to protect it.
In small-town Georgia in 1944, 15-year-old Caleb is surrounded by war.
His older brother, Randall, is serving in a black Army unit overseas, and a German prisoner-of-war camp just opened outside town. Caleb's mother wants him to be baptized in a faith he's not sure he believes in, and his overbearing father fights him over every aspect of his life. But worse than all that is the constant battle African-Americans have, in the segregated South, to be seen and treated as fully human. Caleb defies his father and gets a job washing dishes in a whites-only restaurant, where he is horrified to find a German soldier working beside him. The other restaurant workers, both black and white, are equally horrified, but Andreas, the German, seems to want to be Caleb's friend. Dudley's characterizations are sure and complex. His use of dialect, initially a bit jarring, eventually adds depth to the richly evoked setting. Only an improbable and unnecessary subplot involving faith healing distracts slightly from the story's momentum. The ending, in which a white character reveals the full nature of racism—that blacks might be considered friends but never, ever, equals—is startling, swift and sure, pointing to America's next great war, the battle over civil rights.
Provocative and interesting. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)
What’s goin’ on down there—Klan meetin’?” Nathan pointed toward the corner of Main Street and Pine, just where we were headed.
Henry grabbed my arm. “It ain’t really the Klan, is it, Caleb?”
Sure enough, the sidewalk ahead was jammed with folks—white folks. Even for a Saturday, it was a crowd. My stomach knotted.
“Course not,” I told Henry. “It’s just some white people, not the Klan.”
“Same difference, ain’t it?” Nathan asked.
“Time for us to get off the sidewalk,” I said. “Look who’s coming.”
"The Hill boys.” Nathan spat into the street.
“Only Lonnie and Orris,” Henry said.
“Oh, well, we safe then,” Nathan answered. “I reckon you can take two of ’em by yourself, big and brave as you is.”
“Quit it,” I told them. “We got to move now.”
Henry looked at the street and shook his head. “Not me! That mud a foot deep. I ain’t gonna wreck my shoes.”
Lonnie and Orris, two of the three Hill brothers, nasty white trash who lived way back in the country, were coming up on us fast. We’d had a couple of run-ins with them before, and I didn’t want to mess with them today.
“It’s not that deep,” I insisted. “Come on.” I stepped down, and right away sticky red mud came up over my shoe tops.
“It ain’t that deep,” Nathan mocked.
“Outta my way, boy!” Lonnie Hill said. He and Orris were right in front of us. Lonnie shoved Henry, who lost his balance, fell off the sidewalk, and landed in the mud. Nathan jumped down, and the mud came over his shoes, too.
“Ain’t they ever gonna learn?” Orris asked his brother.
“Not likely. Way too dumb,” Lonnie said. They strolled away, laughing.
“Goddamn crackers,” Nathan muttered. “Who they think they is?”
“White boys,” I told him.
Henry pushed himself up from the mud. “I’m goin’ home,” he said. “Mama gonna get on to me about messin’ up these new overalls.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said.
“She didn’t want me to come with y’all in the first place. Mama say you two always gettin’ me in trouble.”
“Stay home, then,” Nathan told him. “We tired of draggin’ you with us anyway. You ain’t nothin’ but a baby.”
“And you ain’t nothin’ but a son of a bitch!”
Nathan pretended to be shocked. “Oooh! That any way for you to talk? And you gettin’ baptized tomorrow.”
“You, too. And how about the way you act? That way worse than the way I talk. ’Sides, it was you and Caleb taught me to cuss.”
“You was a good student, though. Took to cussin’ like a bull takes to a cow.”
“Both y’all, quit,” I told them. “Let’s get to the post office and then go home.”
“I ain’t goin’ to no post office,” Henry declared. “Not with all this mess on me. I’m goin’ home right now.”
“It’s on the way,” I reminded him. “Just wipe it off. This bag is getting heavy, and I’m sick of toting it all over town.”
“What’sa matter? Don’t you like bein’ your folks’ errand boy?” Nathan asked.
“No, I don’t. I’m sick of doing all Randall’s chores and mine, too.”
“You oughta remind your mama and daddy that slavery days is over,” Nathan said. “Tell ’em you a free man.”
“Oh, sure. And have Pop get all over me? No, thanks.”
If we goin’ to the post office, come on,” Henry said.
“Let’s stay in the street, though,” I said. “We can’t get any muddier, and look at that crowd now.” There were even more white folks standing on the sidewalk up ahead.
As we walked toward the corner, picking our way around pools of rusty red water, I realized what was going on. Davisville’s new restaurant, the Dixie Belle Café, was opening today, and folks were waiting to go inside for dinner. By the door stood a girl wearing a fancy old-fashioned dress with a frilly full skirt. She held a little white umbrella in one hand and carried a basket on her other arm. People were reaching into it for slips of paper.
“She some pretty,” Henry declared.
“She white,” Nathan told him. “Don’t you even look at her.”
Nathan swatted the bill of Henry’s cap. “Ain’t your daddy taught you nothin’? Black man look at a white woman the wrong way—pow! He gone.”
“I know that! All I said was, she pretty.”
“Yeah, she pretty, all right. Regular Scarlett O’Hara.”
Nathan often said Henry either was stupid as a guinea hen or had kept his head in the clouds so long, he didn’t know a thing about the real world. Nathan was right.
“Just keep going,” I told them. “And don’t stare.”
But Henry stopped in his muddy tracks. “Oh, Lord. That fried chicken sure do smell good.”
“I swear,” Nathan said. “You wanna live up to every one of them crackers’ notions about us colored folks? ‘Oh, Mammy, I jes’ got to have me some mo’ of dem collard greens and fried chicken. And don’t forget de yams and de co’nbread!’ ”
I kept quiet. Nathan was funny, but if I laughed, it would only egg him on.
He kept it up anyway. “Lemme pull out my harmonica so Henry can do a little dance— entertain de white folks. Maybe somebody throw us a penny.”
“Shut up!” Henry cried. “You got a big mouth.”
A couple of white men glanced in our direction. We were talking too loud.
I glared at Nathan. “When are you gonna leave him alone?”
He shrugged. “When it ain’t fun to mess with him no more?”
Just then, a man in the crowd said, “Well, if this ain’t my day!” He held up his slip of paper and announced, “ ‘Good for free fried chicken dinners for a family of four.’ ”
“Lucky dog,” a man next to him said. “All I won was a free piece o’ pie.”
People laughed, and then someone opened the doors to the Dixie Belle from inside and the crowd moved forward.
We went around the corner and faced a mud hole as big as a pond stretching all the way across Pine Street.
“No way,” Nathan declared. “Step in that and so long, brother!”
The sidewalk was empty on this side of the building, so I climbed back up and the others followed. We tried scraping the mud off our shoes, like that would help now. Mine were slimy with it, and I could feel water sloshing every time I took a step.
We passed the café, and Nathan and I were halfway up the block before I realized Henry wasn’t with us. I hurried back to get him.
“What is it now?”
“Look in there.”
On the other side of the café window stood tables covered in green and white checked cloths, with shiny chrome chairs around them. Directly by the window was a booth with seats covered in green leather. The table was set for dinner—silverware, napkins, and even a vase of flowers.
No wonder Henry had stopped. It looked as nice as something in a magazine.
Nathan came up behind us and the three of us stood gawking. Then a woman with menus led some people to the booth and frowned when she noticed us. We stayed put.
“Ain’t no law against lookin’,” Nathan said.
The woman gestured at us, shooing us to move along. Now I recognized her—Sondra Davis, who owned this place. Behind her, I could see customers waiting to be seated.
“Let’s go, gentlemen,” Nathan said. “Don’t want to spoil they dinner. Havin’ to think about niggers bound to ruin a cracker’s appetite.”
We set off again.
“I wouldn’t eat in a place like that if you paid me,” Henry declared.
“Ain’t you the man,” Nathan exclaimed. “Now that you thirteen, you all big and tough.”
“Me neither. Can’t stand to be in no room with all them sweaty white people. You know how funky they smell. Make me want to puke.”
We all laughed at that.
“How ’bout you, Caleb?” Henry asked. “Would you eat there?”
“Good thing we all agree, then,” Nathan said, “ ’cause none of us ever gonna be invited inside a place like that. Least not until Kingdom Come.”
We walked on, but my mind stayed behind—at the polished window of the new restaurant, at the fancy tables, at the good smells of simmering greens and baking bread and frying chicken. I’d lied to Henry. I would eat there—any day.
If they’d let me.
Then I noticed a soggy piece of white paper on the sidewalk. I picked it up and read, “Good for one free slice of lemon pie, with the purchase of a meal. Welcome to the Dixie Belle Café!”
I wadded the paper into a ball and hurled it against a brick wall.
White folks were lined up inside the post office, so I took my place at the back, along with three other Negroes, to wait till the clerk had helped all her white customers. When it was finally my turn, I was given a letter from my brother and a cardboard tube addressed to Ma.
Nathan and Henry were waiting for me outside. We could hear what sounded like heavy trucks, so we went back to Main Street to see what was coming. Right away an army truck loaded with men passed by. Another followed, also full of soldiers—but not American soldiers. German prisoners of war.
Not only did the Dixie Belle open today—so did Camp Davis, a mile out of town. The government had built it to hold captured Germans brought here to help do farm work because so many of our guys were off fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Two hundred were supposed to arrive today, Pop had read in the paper. And here they were.
We stood on the sidewalk to watch, and other folks stopped to look, too. A third truck came along, and it stopped to let some people cross the street. I was able to get a good look at the men jammed into the back. Some had on denim jackets and pants. Others had taken off their jackets and showed long-sleeved blue shirts or white T-shirts. Still others had on pieces of their German uniforms. One man wore a long black coat, even on this warm day. Pinned on the front was a golden eagle holding a swastika in its claws. For a moment my eyes met his. Even from a distance, I could see they were pale blue. How many men have you killed? I wondered. Then the truck pulled away.
Beside us, a white man said, “Goddamn Huns. Why didn’t they just shoot ’em all? Last thing we need around here is a pack of Nazis. Craziest thing I ever heard.”
“Why it say ‘PW’ on they jackets?” Henry asked
“‘Prisoner of war,’ dummy,” Nathan replied.
There were eight trucks. After the last one had gone, we headed home. I was late, and Pop would be steamed. He’d run out of screws and had sent me to buy some; then Ma had added flour, lard, and canned goods to my list. She made me promise not to lose her ration book, reminding me it was almost as valuable as cash money these days.
Maybe they wouldn’t be mad when I told them I’d stopped to watch the prisoners arriving. Pop was kind of interested in all that stuff, now that Randall was in the army. But that probably wouldn’t stop him from yelling at me. He always found some reason. And Ma would be fretting because her pies needed baking.
Tomorrow was going to be a big day at church. Henry and Nathan weren’t the only ones getting baptized in Hale’s Pond. I was, too.
Posted February 5, 2012
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