If Opie Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show wrote a book about Mayberry’s racism, the voice would be that of Gabriel Haberlin, the 12-year-old white boy who is saved from near tragedy by Meriwether Hunter, a “colored” man.
The book opens with the event, when Meriwether, who’s begging for a job on Main Street, sees Gabriel pedal through a red light and pushes him out of the way of an oncoming car. The author’s use of the word “colored” isn’t gratuitous—the book’s setting is Birdsong, South Carolina, in 1946. The word also sets the tone of the town’s postwar racial references and bigotry, along with The Negro Motorist Green Book, segregated bathrooms, and the way Mrs. Betty Babcock, the white woman who nearly kills Gabriel, addresses Meriwether as “boy.” But Gabriel says his parents “taught me differently”—and seeks out Meriwether to offer him a job at his father’s garage out of gratitude. After meeting Gabriel’s grateful parents, Meriwether accepts the offer—to the spitting contempt of Lucas Shaw, the other mechanic, who’s white and rumored to have friends in the Ku Klux Klan. The town’s multitudinous racism keeps Meriwether from admitting where he honed his mechanical skills, lest that fact harm him and his family: the Army, where he was a member of the 761st Tank Battalion, also called the Black Panthers. How that fact affects Gabriel and Meriwether’s friendship and Birdsong itself makes for an affecting—and realistic—story.
Another stellar outing from the always-solid Woods. (afterword, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 8-12)