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History Roars Back: The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

Last weekend in a bookstore, my daughter found a paperback copy of The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (Puffin Books, 2013; $7.99). She brought it to me with a smile, knowing I would buy it for her. I try to be generous about books: kids could have worse addictions. And they know I won’t hesitate if they want to learn more about racial justice than what we already discuss, often, over supper.

This particular book was a certain “yes” because it’s also about Little Rock, the subject of my master’s degree history research. I studied the 1927 lynching of John Carter that happened there, but was aware of racial issues because virtually everyone in my family, for several generations before me, graduated from Central High School, before or during the 1957 desegregation crisis. Central was built as Little Rock Senior High thirty years earlier, the same year John Carter was killed. The desegregation of Central High and the 1927 lynching were the two events of Little Rock history that I heard around my own dinner table while growing up in suburban Philadelphia; my parents had moved away after their marriage in 1960.

What Levine has done in Lions is to imagine what happened the year after the Little Rock Nine fought their way through 1957-58, and Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central. In 1958-59, after the 101st Airborne had left the policing of the situation to the Arkansas National Guard, Governor Orval Faubus closed all the Little Rock high schools rather than comply with the federal desegregation order. That year, Levine’s seventh-grade white protagonist Marlee is a painfully quiet math whiz when she enters all-white West Side Junior High, the same school my mother, uncle, and several other relatives attended before this story takes place. As Marlee begins to fall into the familiar shadow of the popular Sally, like she has done every year since kindergarten, she notices a new girl: Liz is friendly and outgoing, and turns her attention to quiet Marlee, who discovers in Liz a true friend. Unlike Sally, who can be cruel, Liz slowly brings Marlee out of her shell and coaches her to talk more – even to give a presentation in front of the class. But one day Liz vanishes from school amid rumors that she actually is African American and had been passing as white.

To 21st-century readers, especially ones as young as this book’s target audience, the notion of “passing” likely will seem odd and confusing. America remains far from its stated ideals of equality, but the one-time scandal of discovering someone’s hidden color thankfully seems to have diminished. Celebrities are far more likely to be outed as racist than as members of any particular ethnic group. Levine skillfully, confidently, and gently explains both the causes and the effects of “passing,” as well as the potentially devastating consequences of being exposed.

On one level, this is a warm story of a junior high friendship, complete with crushes, party dresses, first dates, and the cute boy who wants help cheating on his homework. But against the backdrop of desegregation, hysteria over “race mixing,” and accusations of communism (during the same decade as the McCarthy hearings), nothing is simple. Determined to remain friends after Liz leaves West Side for Dunbar, the “Negro” junior high, Marlee finds ways to send messages and arrange meetings, not quite grasping – or wanting to believe – that she could be putting Liz, as well as herself, in real danger from the Klan and its sympathizers, including the raucous older brother of her crush.

As Marlee and her family (her teacher parents, college-student brother, and sister displaced by Central’s closing) get caught up in and affected by racially and politically charged events, Levine weaves their story into the history of that year. Her parents debate whether Marlee’s mother should teach at the new, private whites-only T.J. Raney School, which my aunt and uncle themselves attended then. Marlee’s father faces job loss because he favors desegregation. Marlee helps stuff envelopes and gather signatures for the special election that recalled three segregationist school board members. In the Author’s Note, Kristin Levine reveals that her mother lived in Little Rock until 1954. No doubt Levine grew up, as I did, hearing about Central, West Side, War Memorial Park, and M. M. Cohn Department Store. The novel mentions the 1927 lynching, as well. Levine thanks a long list of people who helped her with research and details, and includes a reading list of memoirs by the Little Rock Nine, histories of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Reopen the Schools (for which Marlee volunteers), films about the events, and discussion questions to help readers further identify with the characters. Levine’s skill as a novelist lets her introduce accurate information about a challenging subject to young readers in ways that will stick with them and make them want learn more.

Based on my own family’s stories about Little Rock, my only question was whether such an interracial friendship, that year in that city, might have survived the exposure as theirs did. But I’m about a decade older than Ms. Levine. If family childhoods inspired her novel, if her mother might have been around the age of Marlee or her sister in 1958-59, that same year my own parents were 22 and 25. By then, both of mine had graduated from fully segregated schools, so I would have heard stories with a different slant than Levine did.

So my only quibble has a possible, even likely, explanation. But even if it’s a stretch, the beautiful friendship at its heart is this novel’s strength, as well as its bridge to connect to today’s middle readers. The Lions of Little Rock is compelling, suspenseful, and satisfying for young people and adults, alike. If you missed it in hardcover, go find it now.

© 2014 Stephanie Harp

In Maine: BookMarc’s, Bangor; Bella Books and Left Bank Books, Belfast; Blue Hill Books, Blue Hill.

Online: ABE Books, Better World Books