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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Belle, The Last Mule at Gee's Bend, written by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, with illustrations by John Holyfield. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 6 and up

"But we must have scared the white folks in Camden, because the next thing we knew, they shut down the ferry. The white sheriff was a big bully who wanted to keep us in our place. He told reporters, 'We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black."

My list of picture book biographies grows daily and I am pleased to be able to add this well-told of Belle to that growing collection. Children love animal stories, and are especially keen when they know that they are about real life characters.

My interest in Gee's Bend was piqued when a good friend took me to a showing of some of their quilt works at a gallery in Indianapolis a few years ago. Since then, my interest has stayed strong and I was most interested in seeing this new book about a little known moment in American history.

Alex is finding the time long as he waits for his mom to make her purchase of a Gee's Bend quilt. As he sits and waits, his attention is drawn to an old mule who has his chompers in the collard greens of a garden across the road. And old woman sits down beside him, and Alex is brave enough to ask about that mule. Miz Pettway is only too happy to share her story.

Seems that Belle plays an important role in the town's history. An inspiring visit from Dr. Martin Luther King set the wheels in motion for the people of Gee's Bend to take the ferry across the river to Camden. There, they could register to vote. The white folks in Camden did not want that to happen so they closed the ferry to all traffic. Not to be deterred after having their hopes boosted by Dr. King's remarkable rhetoric, the Benders found another way to get to Camden.

They loaded up their wagons and the mules took them the long way around. Belle was one of those mules; but that was not her most notable trek. When Dr. King was assassinated the people of Gee's Bend were asked to provide the mules that would pull his coffin through the streets of Atlanta:

"They wanted to use our mules, not fancy draft horses. Mules take their time, work hard, and they never back down. Mules aren't pretty, but they are somebody!"

Belle and Ada were loaded up for the trip to Atlanta and encountered some roadblocks along the way. When the path was finally cleared for their participation., they slowly and steadily made their way along the funeral route before delivering Dr. King's coffin to Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Now, Belle lives her life as heroes to eat all the collard greens she can handle, and providing fodder for a worthwhile story between Alex and Miz Pettway.  The dialogue is free and easy, making the it great for reading aloud to a young audience.

In a note follwoing the text, the author shares the real facts of this story, with details about Dr. King's request 'for mules to pull the farm wagon that would hold his burial casket.' And on April 9, 1968 Belle and Ada did just archival photo is included showing the mules and the many mourners who made the final trip with Dr. King.

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