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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Lions of Little Rock, written by Kristin Levine. G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin. 2012. $18.00

"Mother and I don't exactly see eye to eye, or even elbow to elbow. She's always trying to get me to do stuff: invite that girl over, volunteer at church, read to that poor blind lady down the street. I know she loves me, but sometimes I think she wishes I were more like Judy. Mother and Judy like to read fashion magazines and go shopping. They get their hair done once a week and read long, romantic novels..."

To say I love this book is banal...saying that, I don't know another word that would give meaning to my immediate feelings for every single word and page of it! Kristin Levine knows how to write...that is an understatement!

While I would like to share page after page of favorite quotes from it, I will only include my absolute favorite.  Marlee in her quiet, thoughtful way describes the people in her life in terms of beverages:

"My brother, David, is a glass of sweet iced tea on a hot summer day, when you've put your feet up in a hammock and haven't got a care in the world. Judy is an ice-cold Coca Cola from the fridge. Sally is cough syrup; she tastes bad, but my mother insists she's good for me. Daddy's a glass of milk, usually cold and delicious, but every once in a while, he goes sour. If I have to ask one of my parents a question, I'll pick him, because Mother is hot black tea, so strong, she's almost coffee."

It is a continuing theme throughout her story.

In this portrait of Little Rock Arkansas in 1958, when the governor refused to integrate the city's high schools, Marlee is lucky enough to be at school. She attends middle school and there she meets a new friend. Liz is just what Marlee needs to convince her that Marlee's voice is worth hearing. It is Liz who encourages her to take part in a shared project where Marlee will have to publicly share her learning. For Marlee, that is a huge step.

Marlee much prefers to stay quiet, having little to say, even though she is thoughtful, smart and does have opinions. She has learned to step back and watch, rather than step forward and voice them. Liz's encouragement and friendship seem to bolster her confidence and move her forward. Then suddenly, Liz is gone from their school, and the reason for her absence does not ring true for Marlee. When the truth is revealed, Marlee learns that her friend is 'passing' as a white student and has been expelled.

It is a testament to the strength of their friendship that the girls do their best (or worst) to ensure that they stay in contact. They meet in secret at the zoo, where they hope that those who see them will think they are both there to see the animals, not to spend valuable time with each other. It is an era of tension and fear. The author is adept in her sensitive handling of the friendship, and those events that are part of American history. She did her homework in creating the setting, the characters, and the historical issues of integration for her readers.

Marlee is almost mute when the story begins. The author cautiously allows her the time to find her voice, and make difficult decisions about the issues that threaten this very strong friendship. They are caught by their families as they struggle to keep contact with each other. Bigots and racists feel the need to make doing so even more dangerous.  It's hard to do the right thing, and they both that lesson reluctantly. Marlee's reliance on math and numbers to solve her problems and keep her calm no longer have the same effect, and her math teacher reminds her of that:

 "But the truth is, the world is much more like an algebraic equation. With variables and changes, complicated and messy. Sometimes there's more than one answer, and sometimes there is none. Sometimes we don't even know how to solve the problem."  

Both sides of the segregation issue are clearly a part of this book, and assure that problems are not simply solved. All that can be done is to go forward one step at a time.
Marlee is a stunningly good character. But, she is not the only one. Her voice is shy in the beginning, but it gains strength as circumstances require her to take a stand, to show that her friendship with Liz is worthy of sacrifice. Liz is also admirable and fully realized. The parents, Pastor George and Betty Jean, Judy, the Daltons and Sally all have pivotal roles in the events that take place, and that lead to Marlee being a totally different person at the end than she was when her story began.

What a truly remarkable read!  Now, I am off to order Kristin Levine's first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had.

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