One of the civil-rights movement’s most iconic projects, Freedom Summer 1964, is revisited in this first novel by an actress who was also a participant.
Celeste Tyree is a 19-year-old light-skinned black woman from Detroit who has come to Mississippi as a volunteer. She does so without telling her father Shuck, a prosperous bar owner who fusses over her dangerous mission. Movement headquarters sends Celeste to the small town of Pineyville, scene of a 1959 lynching, near the Louisiana border. She stays with Geneva Owens, a dignified, intensely religious widow, in her tumbledown home (there’s an outdoor spigot and an outdoor toilet). Celeste must sleep on the floor after the windows are shot up. By day, she teaches five children in the black church; at night, she prepares adults for voter registration. Registration at the county office yields the book’s climax. Dynamic community leader Reverend Singleton is hurled to the floor by the sheriff, who puts a gun to Celeste’s head. They are briefly jailed and their church is burnt to the ground, yet, on their third attempt, they register three voters, a small but significant victory. Despite overheated language, Nicholas conveys the pervasive fear; the confrontations with the white power structure are effective; and she enlarges her picture of freedom fighters battling bigots with a thuggish fellow volunteer and a tyrannical black father. Still, Freedom Summer 1964 has been amply documented in print and on screen and Nicholas falls short in presenting the subject in a fresh light. She focuses on Celeste’s troubled relationship with her mother, living with her second husband in New Mexico, and on her identity issues. Celeste’s internal struggle goes unresolved and acts only as a distraction from the nightmare of being black in Mississippi.
A painful journey over well-trod ground.