In Pugh’s debut novel, a young woman from California joins the Freedom Riders in 1961, gets arrested and jailed in Mississippi, and learns that not everyone appreciates a hero.
Jeri Turner is a 17-year-old spitfire who lives with her cantankerous grandmother in Los Angeles in the early ’60s. As the Civil Rights movement sweeps the country, Jeri volunteers with the Congress of Racial Equality to fight segregation in the South via nonviolent protests. Upon arriving at the bus depot in Jackson, Miss., her group is assaulted, arrested and sent to Parchman Farm, the maximum-security unit of Mississippi’s State Prison. There, through her cell’s air vent, Jeri meets black inmate Ellis Lee. Their brief interactions impel Jeri to skirt big-picture racism and focus on helping Lee—a cause that she is convinced deserves attention, but one that proves disappointingly futile. Pugh’s evocative novel effectively encapsulates the physical and emotional volatility of the Civil Rights era. A former Freedom Rider, the author illustrates the frustration, anger, fear and idealism of youth in her spirited, sharp-tongued protagonist. Pugh writes without sentiment, yet her honest dialogue and insightful descriptions of people and places evoke the visceral sting of injustice. Her ability to create and hold tension is a consistent strength in this novel, and the novel’s tension parallels the tension generated during that era. Pugh also balances the external turbulence with inter-movement politics and personalities. Each character has his or her personal motivations for joining CORE, the validity of which are questioned and judged as much as any criminal’s—black or white. The result is a multilayered story that shows how prejudice and condemnation exist on many levels, across generations, races, genders and states.
A sharp coming-of-age story that makes history come alive.