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Birmingham, 1963

Four Spirits A Novel Sena Jeter Naslund William Morrow: 544 pp., $26.95

September 14, 2003|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Forty years ago, four young girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. As Sena Jeter Naslund reminds us in one of several deftly inserted passages of historical exposition in her fervent new novel, 16th Street was African American Birmingham's wealthiest congregation, cool to the fiery activism of Bethel Baptist minister Fred Shuttlesworth and only slightly more receptive to the less confrontational stance of out-of-towner Martin Luther King Jr. "Their class of colored wanted to negotiate," thinks Gloria Callahan, a fictional 16th Street parishioner who has tentatively joined the civil rights movement. Mocking that class' hesitant entry into the fray, Gloria's combative friend Christine Taylor sneers: "Now educated, rich Negroes talking to rich white folks." But moderates and militants alike were all "niggers" to the white men who set the bomb, and murder was their chosen way of backing up Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace's vow to preserve segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

The bombing and other brutal real-life events form a backdrop against which Naslund's large cast of characters confronts ethical, political and even romantic dilemmas in the city that came to symbolize white intransigence. Herself a Birmingham native, a college student there during the most intense years of the struggle for racial justice, Naslund recaptures that period with immediacy and intimacy. Her previous work, "Ahab's Wife: or, The Star-Gazer," was an intriguing attempt to rewrite "Moby-Dick" from a woman's point of view, but for all its merits, it seemed a little studied, more willed than felt. Here, the author wears her heart on her sleeve, from the dedication to the children "killed Sunday, September 15, 1963, in the racist bombing" through a final letter to readers describing her novel as "a positive book [that] celebrates courage, friendship, family, and community."

Naslund's desire to accentuate the positive results in some simplistic passages, but her passionate sincerity carries the day as the story sweeps across the 20 months from May 1963 to January 1965. She enters the private thoughts of blacks and whites, asserting that any human heart is the novelist's domain. "We've always been integrated," says Stella Silver, a white college student who serves as the author's stand-in. "Our lives have always been layered together. We know each other." Christine, who voices most of the book's less palatable truths, shoots back: "Separate and unequal." Stella agrees, then adds: "But together. Inseparable, anyhow." Honestly depicting liberal piety countered by a sharp reality check, yet ultimately affirming the two women's solidarity, this exchange nicely encapsulates the novel's fundamental point of view.

Christine and Stella get to know each other at Miles College, a black school hosting a program to prepare African Americans to take the high school equivalency exam. The author herself taught in a similar program, and these scenes are among her best, rich with the unmistakable cadences and complexity of lived experience as they delineate Stella's nervousness, the veiled rudeness of her students (most of them young men paid to attend by a community program) and Christine's initial hostility to this privileged white girl whose very presence on campus endangers them all. But a bomb threat intended to discourage racial mixing instead draws this disparate group together; several of them later meet at a downtown lunch counter to stage the sit-in that brings events to a violent climax.

Daily life goes on even in a revolutionary situation, and Naslund does not neglect her characters' personal relations. Lionel Parrish, the minister who directs the Miles program, is a handsome womanizer who catches Christine's eye, although she has three young children at home and only an alcoholic sister to mind them when she's away. Stella goes through two fiances before falling in love with a redheaded Yankee pianist. Stella's friend Cat fights to work and play fully despite a wasting disease that confines her to a wheelchair. Agnes LaFayt, a gentle, devout older student at Miles, grieves because she and her beloved husband can't have children.

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