There had been a colored girl in one of Judy’s classes last year at Central High School, the best high school in all of Arkansas. For the first time, nine Negroes had enrolled…the Little Rock Nine. The integration had gone so badly that President Eisenhower sent in soldiers to help keep the peace…
Last year, Daddy had started driving me to school. The first time was the day after one of the colored girls from Central had been surrounded by a mob at the bus stop. In the picture in the paper, the white people were yelling at her, and yet she’d held her head up high. I couldn’t understand why half of Little Rock was screaming over a few colored kids…
It happened again a few months later. Daddy had invited a colored pastor to come talk to his Bible study group at church. He said the meeting had gone well, but the next day he’d found a note tucked in with the morning paper. He didn’t let any of us read the note, not even Mother, but he drove me to school every day after that.
12-year-old Marlee Nisbett lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s September, 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine made history by integrating Central High School amid a barrage of harassment, media attention, and military intervention. Now the camera lenses have turned elsewhere, but the people of Little Rock are still painfully navigating their way through the highly charged racial tensions surrounding their schools.
It’s not going well. In fact, rather than comply with integration, all public high schools in Little Rock have been closed! Marlee is suddently caught in a confusing, bitter situation, with her parents taking opposing sides on the issue and her beloved older sister bustled off to live in another town in order to attend school.
Marlee is an uncommonly taciturn young girl; painfully so. With an incredibly math-savvy mind, she much prefers to manage her problems and anxieties by turning inward to orderly patterns and quietness. She is misunderstood by many. So, when a new girl, Liz, shows up in school, brimful of confidence and savoir faire, and she — wonder of wonders — chooses Marlee for a friend, her life begins to take many surprising turns. Most surprising of all is the day when Liz up and disappears, leaving only ugly rumors swirling about the school that she was actually a colored girl, attempting to pass as a white, attending school in a place she had no right to belong.
Doggedly pursuing her friendship with Liz, Marlee stumbles into far more danger and ugliness than she bargains for, but gradually finds her voice — physically and morally — to stand up for what is right in her community.
Kristin Levine’s new (2012) novel is fascinating, centered as it is in a moment of history I had never heard about. Besides that, Marlee is a unique, intriguing, likable narrator. Her quiet ways provide her with plenty of opportunities to observe people, and she has a delightful penchant of likening them to beverages — a comforting cup of cocoa, for example, or a tangy glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. In the course of the story she copes with not only racial tensions, but personal fears, moral dilemmas, and relationships common to many middle-school-age children. I found Levine’s writing to be smooth, engaging, with a nice balance to the storyline — harshness and beauty, hatred and kindness; a facing up to bitter injustices, yet not without the warmth of hope.
An Author’s Note gives a bit of interesting background to Levine’s route to this particular episode of history and clarifies what in the novel is fictionalized. There is also a nice list of books and films for further exploration. I really liked this novel and recommend it for ages 11 and up; it probably has a bit more girl appeal with the narrator and main characters female, but it is clearly not a tame story. I’m anxious to read Levine’s earlier work, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, which is also about racism, but which features a male protagonist.
Here’s the Amazon link: The Lions of Little Rock