4.1 8
by Julius Lester

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There are times when a tree can no longer withstand the pain inflicted on it, and the wind will take pity on that tree and topple it over in a mighty storm. All the other trees who witnessed the evil look down upon the fallen tree with envy. They pray for the day when a wind will end their suffering.

I pray for the day when God will end mine.

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There are times when a tree can no longer withstand the pain inflicted on it, and the wind will take pity on that tree and topple it over in a mighty storm. All the other trees who witnessed the evil look down upon the fallen tree with envy. They pray for the day when a wind will end their suffering.

I pray for the day when God will end mine.

In a time and place without moral conscience, fourteen-year-old Ansel knows what is right and what is true.

But it is dangerous to choose honesty, and so he chooses silence.

Now an innocent man is dead, and Ansel feels the burden of his decision. He must also bear the pain of losing a friend, his family, and the love of a lifetime.

Coretta Scott King Award winner and Newbery Honoree Julius Lester delivers a haunting and poignant novel about what happens when one group of people takes away the humanity of another.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A sense of foreboding permeates the first half of this powerful novel, which opens with an allusion to a lynching: in the Deep South, says an unidentified narrator, the oldest trees "do not speak because they are ashamed." Lester (Pharaoh's Daughter) begins the action proper in the summer of 1946, homing in on Ansel Anderson, being trained to take over his father's business at the age of 14-old enough, his father, Bert, thinks, "to understand what it meant to be white" and for shop assistant Willie, whom Ansel treats like a brother, "to understand what it meant to be a nigger." After Willie's father is falsely accused of raping and murdering the preacher's daughter-by the man demonstrably guilty-the townsmen clamor for a hanging. Ansel demands that Bert back up Willie's testimony; Bert silences him and makes him help get the rope from the family store, then watch the lynching. Focusing on the repercussions of white guilt, the author's understated, haunting prose is as compelling as it is dark; if the characterizations tend toward the extreme, the story nonetheless leaves a deep impression. Ages 14-up. (Nov.)

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KLIATT - Paula Rohrlick
In the summer of 1946, in a small town in the deep South, the cruelty of racism abruptly changes the life of a 14-year-old boy. Ansel, the white son of the town storekeeper, has always been best friends with Willie, who is African American, despite the common prejudice against "niggers." Ansel has a crush on alluring Mary Susan, the preacher's daughter who knows the power of her ripening body, but so does Zeph, the nasty son of the man who owns much of the town. When Willie's father, shell-shocked in the war, runs out of the church to say he's just found Mary Susan stabbed to death, and that he saw Zeph do it, Ansel and his father rush to the scene. They find Zeph covered in blood, holding a knife—and accusing Willie's father of the crime. Ansel's father, fearful of town vengeance, insists to his son they "didn't see a damn thing." And so Willie's father is lynched, with Ansel in the crowd. And while Ansel understands that telling the truth would not have saved the man, he can't forgive himself for keeping quiet, even when he leaves for school in Massachusetts, grows up and becomes a lawyer. Powerful and provocative, stripped down to its basic elements, this brief novel will ignite discussions in high school classrooms. It's strong stuff, melodramatic yet effective, and it deserves a wide readership. Lester, a noted author, civil rights activist, and former professor, includes an author's note at the end about the history of lynching, along with a table listing lynchings by state and race. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick
VOYA - Laura Woodruff
In summer 1946, Ansel Anderson and his best bud, Little Willie, enjoy life in Davis, their small southern town. Both fourteen, they know the rules about race but ignore them in private. Ansel's father Bert, however, worries about his son's friendship with a "nigger" and vows to "do something before the boy [grows] up to be unfit . . . to be a member of the white race." Things in Davis have not really changed since the Civil War. No matter that spinster Esther Davis, daughter of deceased founder Cap'n Davis, has fancy ideas brought home from Radcliffe or that she secretly finances jobs for Willie at Bert's store and for Willie's father at the church. Her sixteen-year-old nephew Zeph Davis III, next in line, knows the rules and helps himself to whatever he wants, including the young daughters of the family's sharecroppers. Things go badly wrong, though, when Zeph helps himself to the minister's pretty daughter and uses his knife when she resists. This novel is a lynching primer. As Lester explains in an author's note, he long planned to write this novel based upon his own youth but wanted to construct it from a white boy's point of view. Ugly, brutal, and sad, the story has no winners. Explicitly described sexual encounters and stomach-turning violence might prove difficult for some readers. Readers should note that Lester, a Newbery honor and Coretta Scott King winner, in this small novel successfully rekindles a time of institutionalized prejudice in its worst form. The question becomes, then, how much today's young readers can bear. Reviewer: Laura Woodruff
Children's Literature - Phyllis Kennemer
Ansel Anderson's 14th summer in 1946 was a turning point in his life. Ansel's father owned and ran the general store in the small southern town of Davis, as had his father before him and as Ansel was expected to do after him. Black people were only allowed to shop on Saturdays and Ansel's quiet, seemingly passive mother came in on those days to help them with their purchases. Ansel had befriended Willie, a Negro boy who worked with him in the store, and he liked Willie's father. Ansel had problems with Zeph Davis, the son of a prominent white man in town. Zeph was forcing his attentions on the pastor's daughter, who was a special friend of Ansel's. Then Ansel and his father witnessed the killing of this girl by the same Zeph Davis. The townspeople accused Willie's father of the crime and proceeded to hang him from a tree immediately. Ansel's father reopened the store in order to sell soda pop to the spectators. Ansel was ashamed about remaining silent, although he knew he could not have changed the outcome. When he arrived home, his mother revealed her arrangements for him to leave town and avoid the life his father planned for him. The author explains in his notes that he purposely wrote the story from the viewpoint of a white boy in order to show a different side of racism than is usually depicted. Lester's notes also include factual information about lynchings. A table in the Appendix provides statistics about the numbers of recorded lynchings of both black and white people in the 50 continental states between 1882 and 1968. A significant contribution to the literature of this era. Reviewer: Phyllis Kennemer, Ph.D.
School Library Journal

Gr 7-10

With segregation still ruling the rural South in 1946, the friendship between Ansel Anderson, who is white, and Willie Benton, who is black, faces many obstacles. After the town eccentric offers the boys an opportunity to leave their homes and pursue their dreams, the 14-year-olds consider their options. However, when Ansel's father helps a mob lynch Willie's father for the murder of a white girl, the teens must pursue their destinies separately. After many years, Ansel stops by his hometown and encounters Zeph Davis, the actual killer. Lester's unconventional opening momentarily confuses readers, but they are soon drawn into the narrative. "Trees remember.... But some trees do not speak...because they are ashamed." Poignant and powerful phrasing overshadows spare character development and helps satisfy readers' desire to explore the deeper motivations for some behaviors. The understated violence, coupled with reflections on lynching, heightens the horror. Back matter includes an author's note that explains the genesis of the story, an appendix with lynching statistics broken down by state, and a bibliography of lynching-related titles. Detailing the death of a friendship and the drive to succeed, Lester's compelling tale is an excellent purchase for most libraries.-Chris Shoemaker, New York Public Library

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Guardian EPB

Chapter One


Summer 1946.

Davis, a small town in the deep South of the United States.

Fourteen-year-old Ansel Anderson stands by the screen door in the entrance of the store his grandfather started, the store where Ansel's father worked beside his father when he was a boy, the store where Ansel now works beside his father.

It is late afternoon. The heat is as heavy as a broken heart.

Nothing moves, not the leaves on the large oak tree at the end of the concrete island in the middle of the main street, not the three men sitting on a bench in the tree's shade, not even a bird.

On the other side of the street, the clothing, shoe, and drug stores are as empty of customers as Anderson's.

Long before Ansel was born, when his grandfather ran Anderson's General Store, they carried clothes, shoes, and remedies in addition to the groceries, rifles, ammunition, and fishing equipment they carried now. Bert, Ansel's father, took over the store after his father dropped dead behind the counter from a heart attack because, Bert believed, the store had tried to be everything to everybody. That was a good way to give yourself a heart attack, not run a business. Bert was only eighteen when his father died, but he consolidated the inventory and increased profitability.

Ansel has worked in the store since he can remember. One day it will be his. He is not sure he will be as good at it as his father is.

Bert is a congenial and handsome man with curly, dark hair, blue eyes, and a smile that could steal honey from bees.

Many people, especially women, come to the store as much for hissmile as to buy what they need. Bert knows people need a smile as much as they need to buy milk.

People almost always leave the store feeling better than when they came in, and all because Bert smiled at them.

Ansel is more like his mother-short, dark straight hair, dark eyes. She looks younger than her thirty-two years, and he certainly looks younger than his fourteen.

His mother, Maureen, used to work in the store every day after she and Bert married six months before Ansel was born. But she only works Saturdays now. That's when Zeph Davis, or Cap'n Davis, as everyone, white and colored, calls him, brings his Negroes into town.

They don't have money. They work on shares. He takes care of all their needs-a shack to live in, clothes to wear, food to eat, cottonseed, and everything else they might need. In the fall when they pick the cotton and bring it to Cap'n Davis to be weighed, he deducts their expenses from what he would have paid them for the cotton, and their expenses include the cheese and crackers and sodas they buy at Anderson's every Saturday. Their expenses are always greater than what Cap'n Davis pays them for the cotton they grow, so each year they end up deeper in debt to him than they were the year before. It is another form of slavery.

Ansel's mother is the one who writes in the big ledger book what the Negroes buy and how much it costs.

There is a dour seriousness about her and Ansel. Both mother and son are cloaked in melancholy, a sadness arising, perhaps, from the land in which the sorrowing trees spread their roots, a despair that their lives have as little meaning as the dust stirred up by a passing car.

It worries Bert that Ansel is so much like his mother. The boy can't seem to grasp a simple thing like how important it is to smile at customers. "People buy as much because they like you as because they need something."

"What if I don't feel like smiling?" Ansel asked his father once.

Bert had gotten angry. "There ain't no place for feelings in business. Your job is to see to it that people who come in for one thing leave with two, three, or four. The only thing you should be feeling is how you can get somebody to believe he needs something, whether he does or not. People don't want to feel like you're taking their money. Smile, and they'll feel like they're giving it to you."

"But that's not honest," Ansel had insisted.

Bert smiled. "It is if you're running a business!"

Ansel turns away from the door and goes over to his father, who is seated behind the counter.

"Papa? Do you need me and Willie for anything?"

Bert looks at his son. He remembers what it was like when he was fourteen and stood looking out the screen door on a day like today thinking he was going to die of boredom. He would not have minded closing the store and going home, but if he did, as sure as he was breathing, somebody would come to town wanting something.

"I reckon not. You and Willie going to do a little fishing?"

"Yes, sir."

"Y'all can go on. But tomorrow's Wednesday. You and Willie have to take groceries and supplies out to Miz Esther's first thing."

"Yes, sir. Thanks, Papa." Ansel runs eagerly to the storage room at the back of the store where Willie is.

Bert frowns as he hears the two excited voices.

He had hired Willie for the summer because Esther Davis had asked him to. As far as Bert was concerned, a nigger boy like that ought to be out working in the field, but his mama was Esther's cook and housekeeper, and his father was crazy. There wasn't anybody he could work in the fields with.

Bert didn't need the boy, but he couldn't refuse to do something a Davis asked, even one as eccentric as Esther.

He had to admit that the boy worked hard keeping the storage room neat and organized, shelving goods, and packing groceries. Him doing what Ansel would normally be doing had given Bert the opportunity to start teaching his son the business-how to do the ordering, from whom and for what, how to keep track of inventory, and how to total up the receipts at the end of each day.

Guardian EPB. Copyright (c) by Julius Lester . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Julius Lester is the author of the Newbery Honor Book To Be a Slave, the Caldecott Honor Book John Henry, the National Book Award finalist The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, and the Coretta Scott King Award winner Day of Tears. He is also a National Book Critics Circle nominee and a recipient of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. His most recent picture book, Let's Talk About Race, was named to the New York Public Library's "One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing." In addition to his critically acclaimed writing career, Mr. Lester has distinguished himself as a civil rights activist, musician, photographer, radio talk-show host, and professor. For thirty-two years he taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He lives in western Massachusetts.

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