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Four Spirits: A Novel

Four Spirits: A Novel

4.3 6
by Sena Jeter Naslund

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Weaving together the lives of blacks and whites, racists and civil rights advocates, and the events of peaceful protest and violent repression, Sena Jeter Naslund creates a tapestry of American social transformation at once intimate and epic.

In Birmingham, Alabama, twenty-year-old Stella Silver, an idealistic white college student, is sent reeling off her


Weaving together the lives of blacks and whites, racists and civil rights advocates, and the events of peaceful protest and violent repression, Sena Jeter Naslund creates a tapestry of American social transformation at once intimate and epic.

In Birmingham, Alabama, twenty-year-old Stella Silver, an idealistic white college student, is sent reeling off her measured path by events of 1963. Combining political activism with single parenting and night-school teaching, African American Christine Taylor discovers she must heal her own bruised heart to actualize meaningful social change. Inspired by the courage and commitment of the civil rights movement, the child Edmund Powers embodies hope for future change. In this novel of maturation and growth, Naslund makes vital the intersection of spiritual, political, and moral forces that have redefined America.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The book's last act, involving the murder of four protesters at a sit-in, is violent and shocking and leads to one of the few sermons in contemporary literature that I can recall as vital and moving. Four Spirits plausibly upholds Stella's conviction (an old Southern one), expressed to her black colleagues, that ''our lives have always been layered together. . . . Inseparable, anyhow.'' In this novel, anyhow, she's right. And in this novel at least, Naslund brings a measure of dignity and moral complexity to her portrayal of a city that came to be known as ''Bombingham.'' If only history were quite so compassionate. — Will Blythe
Publishers Weekly
During the civil rights conflict, Birmingham, Ala., was notorious for the ferocity of its racial bigotry: peaceful demonstrators attacked with fire hoses and dogs by police chief Bull Connor; the Klan-set explosion at a black church that killed four little girls. The four victims are only background figures in Naslund's (Ahab's Wife) faithful and moving evocation of the city and the era, but they appear to several characters in the form of spirits who promise the reconciliation to come. The novel is constructed as a series of vignettes that follow a dozen or so characters whose lives finally intersect in entirely credible ways, and who serve as emblems of the divided citizens of Birmingham, some who bitterly fought integration and others who persevered in their struggle for equality. As such, it's a panorama of the social landscape of the Deep South during its violent crucible of change. Naslund, who grew up in Alabama, writes with a deep, instinctive compassion for the South's tragic heritage of racial hatred, and an understanding of the high toll paid by people committed to justice. She develops her plot in a leisurely fashion that initially may leave readers somewhat frustrated, but her method eventually pays off in stunning scenes, vivid with action, color and emotion, that recreate both the horror and the heroism. The characters pivot around Stella Silver, a white college student who is horrified by the glee in her community when JFK is assassinated, and who is moved to activism. In its authentic, balanced evocation of daily life across a wide spectrum of the black and white communities, this novel justifies its length and measured pace, and credibly renders the faith and courage that brought redemption to a blood-soaked city. Agent, Joy Harris. 21-city author tour. (Sept.) Forecast: Naslund treads familiar ground here, which may deflect a few readers, but her powers of synthesis and fidelity to historical detail could make this a big seller, on a par with Ahab's Wife. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Though she enjoys the comforts of white, Southern, middle-class life circa 1963, Stella Silver has experienced trauma: on a family trip 15 years earlier, only five-year-old Stella survived the auto crash that killed her parents and siblings. Now a college student, Stella is enmeshed in equally tragic circumstances. Her hometown is called "Bombingham" because of escalating racist violence, including the murder of four children at a church youth service. At first a horrified observer, Stella decides that she must act after witnessing Birmingham citizens openly celebrating President Kennedy's assassination. Stella and Cat, her wheelchair-bound best friend, join the integrated faculty of a night school, where they teach black high school dropouts, deliberately putting themselves in the heart of the danger zone. The consequences are felt throughout the city, setting in motion soul-wrenching acts of fury, courage, sacrifice, and faith. Told in beautifully crafted prose, this is a moving, historically accurate tale of a time of social transformation. Not surprisingly, given how successfully she brought to life the title character in Ahab's Wife, Naslund avoids the stereotyping and easy judgments that might have come with this subject, primarily thanks to her skill at creating an array of authentic and complex characters from all levels of Birmingham society. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The author of Ahab's Wife (Morrow, 1999), a feminist corrective to Moby-Dick, has picked an equally ambitious subject for this novel: the racial injustice, hatred, and horror of Birmingham, AL, circa 1963. With a full cast of fictional characters, and a few historical figures (Police Commissioner Bull Connor, the Reverends Shuttlesworth, King, and Abernathy), Naslund weaves a busy but satisfying story of real and imagined events: lunch-counter sit-ins, fire-hosed demonstrators, police dogs at children's heels. The title refers to the spiritual presence (felt by several characters) of the four young girls who died in the horrendous bombing of their church. One matronly woman "sees" them as honeybees on roses, one bee to a rose. Because of this and other such contrivances, some readers might find the narrative strained, and the principal characters either too good or too horrible. For the most part, though, the author manages to keep this big story under control, in part by employing a measured narrative pace. There is plenty of value here for strong, informed teens. Undoubtedly, some readers will find the novel too slow, or too full of names and events, and thus confusing. But for those who can handle the mature themes, Four Spirits is an excellent history lesson, and a story not soon forgotten.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The earnest, accusatory latest from the versatile Alabama author (Ahab's Wife, 1999, etc.), this time about the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham in the annus horribilis of 1963 and thereafter. The bombing of a black church in which four young girls (the title's presiding "spirits") are killed and the ideal of nonviolent resistance preached by Martin Luther King provide the background for a busy melodrama in which a dozen or more prototypical black and white characters work out their individual and common destinies. The central figure is Stella Silver, orphaned since childhood and sympathetically attuned to the plight of second-class citizens-to the extent that she undertakes dangerous volunteer duty teaching at a school for black children. Stella is matched in nobility by her college friend, wheelchair-bound Catherine ("Cat") Cartwright, and by angry black colleague Christine Taylor. As the summer in "Bombingham" heats up, and injustices and atrocities multiply, other major roles are filled by heroic Korean War vet TJ La Fayt (the object of particularly virulent racial violence); Christine's sensitive and artistic prize pupil Gloria; KKK stalwart Ryder Jones and his abused wife Lee (whom Ryder tutors in bomb-making); and Stella's second fiancé (after she's dumped his insufficiently saintly predecessor), Cat's brother Don ("He was like Alan Ladd crossed with Rock Hudson"-hmmm). In case you're thinking the latter might have some redeeming human flaws, be advised that he's also a Peace Corps volunteer. Reverends King and Ralph Abernathy make cameo appearances, and the voice of Sheriff "Bull" Connor is heard throughout the land. Things end with the requisite sacrifices andmartyrdoms, and the death of a celestial black matriarch, who, like Faulkner's Dilsey, has "endured." As social protest, Four Spirits is commendably passionate and partisan; as fiction, it's overexplicit, contrived, and stocked with posturing, lecturing cardboard characters. A great subject, poorly treated. Surely Naslund can do better than this. Author tour. Agent: Joy Harris
USA Weekend
“Filled with the fear Naslund witnessed, the characters ...come to life ....Naslund succeeds splendidly in making history a page-turner.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“...contains one of the most astonishing pieces of writing to appear in any novel of recent memory.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“This is a brave and multifaceted book, propelled by a mission, and ...it is a page-turner.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Naslund’s insight and craftsmanship ...capture the complexities and cultural nuances of the times.”
New York Times Book Review
“Vital and moving...It’s as if Virginia Woolf went down to Birmingham to cover the civil rights struggle.”
Detroit Free Press
“This is a wonderful, wonderful novel ...[Naslund] has blown a deep breath of life into Four Spirits.”
Louisville Courier Journal
“A major novel of great cultural and historical importance.”
Denver Post
“...A compelling picture of the South and the civil rights movement during one of its pivotal moments.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Crisp, insightful writing.”

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Chapter One

From many places in the valley that cradled birmingham you could lift up your eyes, in 1963, to see the gigantic cast-iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, atop his stone pedestal. Silhouetted against the pale blue skyline, atop Red Mountain, Vulcan held up a torch in one outstretched, soaring arm. In other mountain ridges surrounding the city, the ore lay hidden, but the city had honored this outcropping of iron ore named Red Mountain, as a reminder of the source of its prosperity (such as it was -- most of the wealth of the steel industry was exported to magnates living in the great cities of the Northeast), by raising Vulcan high above the populace, south of the city.

Fanciful and well-educated children liked to pretend that Vulcan, who looked north, had a romance with the Statue of Liberty, also made of metal. But she was the largest such statue in the world, and he was second to her, and that violated the children's sense of romance, for they understood hierarchy in romance to be as natural as hierarchy among whites and blacks.

Looking down from Vulcan -- his pedestal housed stairs, and around the top of the tower ran an observation platform -- you could see the entire city of Birmingham filling the valley between the last ridges of the Appalachian mountain chain as it stretched from high in the northeast to southwest.

In early May 1963, Stella's freckle-faced boyfriend, a scant half inch taller (but therefore presentable as a boyfriend, if she wore flats), had persuaded her to drive from their college, across the city, avoiding the areas where Negroes were congregating for demonstrations, to Red Mountain. From the observation balcony just below Vulcan's feet, Stella and Darl hoped for a safe overview.

I believe if outsiders would just stay out ... Darl had told her. Let Birmingham solve ... Don't you?

But Stella hadn't answered. Instead, she'd said, I'd like to see. I'm afraid to go close.

We can go up on Vulcan, Darl had offered, for he was a man who wanted to accommodate women; a man who loved his mother. Stella had met her. He'd brought along his bird-watching binoculars. Darl could recognize birds by their songs alone; he could imitate each sound; he kept a life list of all the birds he had ever seen. His actual name was Darling, his mother's maiden name, and though Stella dared not call him Darling, she longed to do so.

"Do you know the average altitude for the flight of robins?" he asked.

A spurt of laughter flew from between Stella's lips. She imagined the giggle as though it had heft and was falling rapidly down from the pedestal, down the mountain, into the valley.

"I don't have the foggiest idea," she said.

"About thirty inches."

"What a waste!" she said. "To have the gift of flight and to fly so low."

She thought Darl might laugh at her sentence -- half serious, half comic -- but he didn't.

Stella glanced up the massive, shining body of Vulcan, past his classical and bare heinie, up his lifted arm to his unilluminated torch. At a distance, she had often observed that the nighttime neon "flame" made the torch resemble a Popsicle. Cherry red, if someone had died in an auto accident; lime green, otherwise. Even this close and looking up his skirt, Vulcan's frontal parts were completely covered by his short blacksmith's apron.

Though it was May and the police were already into short sleeves, on the open observation balcony, Darl and Stella were lifted above the heat into a layer of air with cool breezes. Stella wished she'd worn a sweater. Darl put his arm around her -- just for warmth, she told herself with determined naïveté, but she thrilled at his encircling arm diagonally crossing her back. His fingers fitted the spaces between her curving ribs. They were alone up in the air; they weren't some trashy couple smooching in public. Yes, this was what she had been wanting. Perhaps for years. Someone's arm around her, making her safe.

Stella knew her breasts were terribly small. If they had been plumper, Darl's fingertips might have found the beginnings of roundness. Sex, sex, sex, she thought. His hand slid down to her waist; her mind careened. Do I feel slender enough there? Inviting? With his other hand, Darl trained the binoculars on the city. With one finger, he adjusted the ridged wheel between the twin eyepieces. The black leather strap looped gracefully around the back of his neck.

Darl was the complete darling: a lover of nature, a lover of music, a lover of God, considerate, a gentleman -- if only he loved her. And best of all he was an organist, a master of the king of instruments. When Darl played Bach's "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," creating his own improvisations, Stella felt understood. It was she who had been wounded, and the music was what she missed and needed. The way Darl played promised wholeness, profundity. Almost it seemed that the spirit of her father was hovering around Darl and her on this high place.

She placed her hand just below Darl's waist; she shivered as though to say "I only seek closeness for warmth, against the chill." Her palm loved the unfamiliar grain of the cloth of his trousers, and underneath, the firm flesh of his buttock just beginning to flare. How tantalized her hand felt, the hand itself wishing it dare move down to know the curve of his butt. She glanced again at the side of his cheek, the binoculars trained on the city. His hair was a rich brown, and his freckles almost matched his hair.

She wanted to brush the field glasses aside, to stand in front of him ...

The foregoing is excerpted from Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Meet the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.

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Four Spirits 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I tore through this book in two days it was so hard to put down. I had read and loved Ahab's Wife and was definitely not disappointed by Four Spirits.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a heartwrenching story for me. I grew up in Birmingham in the 50s and 60s, during the time depicted so vividly in this searing novel. In fact, I lived on the same boulevard where Stella lived, went to the same high school, and in fact learned-- after having this book recommended to me by someone who knew I grew up in Birmingham-- that the author's brother and I graduated from there the same year. (She is his younger sister). During this time period I was myopically living the life of a middle class young white girl, totally untouched by the struggles of the times, by the fear, the suffering, the heroism, the humanity of those central to the struggle for human rights and dignity. By reading this book I was able to relive my past from a whole different perspective. What a gift!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could not put the book down! I wasn't around in the 60s, but the raw emotion on the pages of this book made me feel like I was. Naslund is a fantastic writer. Her characters have depth; her plots are deep and meaningful. She questions the values the lay at the core of humanity. A must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is always interesting to read different viewpoints on the same events
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago