Middle-grade readers are in luck. Levine has written a
richly-realized tale of a powerful best-friendship and a boy's passage into
manhood during a shameful and violent period in America's past.
Moundville Alabama is the backdrop for twelve-year-old Dit Sims' lively (occasionally hokey) first-person narrative. One of ten children of a white family, Dit's days are filled with hunting, fishing, chopping wood, skipping stones along the surface of the Black Warrior River, and lessons in a one-room school. Rural life during the teens of the last century will absorb and shock young twenty-first century readers: Levine confidently and convincingly describes Dit's once-weekly baths in a washtub; his hand-wound twine baseball; his games of marbles; his first disorienting and overwhelming experience watching a silent movie; and the racial divisions, bigotry, hypocrisy and violence that inform small-town civilities in early 20th century Alabama. There is a school for whites and a school for blacks, a white church and a black church. African American men relinquish their seats to white men during evening gatherings in front of the town general store. White men steal from African American men without punishment, everyone (at least it appears this way) mourns the South's loss of the Civil War.
It is only when African-American Emma Walker becomes his neighbor that Dit begins to question the way things are and have always been. Emma and her parents are educated, refined and proud Bostonians. Mr. Walker is the town's postmaster and Mrs. Walker is a skilled nurse. Emma is a lonely and intellectual girl who is ignorant of or indifferent to the things that matter most to Dit. Levine might have been more effective if country Dit and city Emma had been more nuanced characters, less symmetrical in their contrasts. Having read a book or two would not have blunted Dit's energy, and Emma's sensitivity wouldn't have been dulled by having thrown a ball or jumped rope. Instead, Levine's Emma is Yin to Dit's Yang, formal and thoroughly literary while Dit is an unread (and unwashed most days) hick. Emma is introspective, wary, and observant while Dit is thoughtless and impulsive - often speaking without thinking.
One of the most interesting conflicts between the two friends concerns killing. Dit has a great arm which he uses to stone birds to death for fun. He is eager to enter a 4th of July hunting contest, and thinks nothing of trapping rabbits in painful snares. Emma's thoughtful objections to Dit's cruel wounding of a buzzard force Dit to distinguish between hunting and killing and to recognize animals' capacity for suffering. Emma comes to accept hunting for food and strives to respect hunting simply because it is important to her friend. The give and take between the two youngsters softens Dit's hard edges and eventually sensitizes him to the human anguish in his world. He winces when the town bully and sheriff, Big Foot, insults Emma or humiliates her father or the other African American men in the town.
Levine is most effective when she presents history without commentary or too much drama. When the children discover a native American bowl in a cave; or when they spend a thrilling night in the cabin of a local hermit during a rainstorm; or when an airplane, low on fuel, touches down in a cow pasture near town, Levine succeeds in transporting the reader to Alabama in 1917. But when Dit and Emma witness the killing of the town sheriff by an African American who does so in self defense but is nonetheless convicted of murder, and they devise a plot to free him from jail, improbability and complexity dampen the adventure. Dit and Emma are liveliest and most real and wonderful when the novel's ambitions weigh most lightly upon them: When the youngsters build a secret hideout, stock it with soda, and share it daily after school; when Dit teaches Emma to skip stones, or to throw a baseball while Emma helps him memorize state capitols.
'Show me again,' said Emma.
So I took her hand in mine and wrapped it around a smooth flat stone. Her fingers were cool and stiff, but her skin was beautiful, kind of like the mud in the creek after a hard rain. I rubbed her hands between mine, trying to get the blood running. She watched me. Then I said, 'Try it again.'
She took that stone and threw it so hard, it skipped seven or eight times across the water. We both stood there with our mouths open. I'm not sure who was more surprised.
In discovering each other, the two friends discover themselves.
This review was originally published in March 2009, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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