The growth of a southern white boy’s moral consciousness.
McFarland’s affecting but uneven fifth outing (after Singing Boy, 2000, etc.) is based on fact: the defiance of a 1959 Supreme Court order to integrate public schools, by Virginia’s Prince Edward County, whose white residents conspired to build a (private) “Foundation School” that would exclude black children. Our narrator, ten-year-old Ben Rome, observes this process and events related to it with mingled excitement, fear, and guilt. He’s concerned for his black friend Burghardt, son of the Romes’ “tenant” Julius, who shares Ben’s chores on the Rome egg farm. Ben labors to understand his father’s ingrained racism, his mother’s emotional instability, the resentments nurtured by his adult brother Al and married (and pregnant) sister Lainie—and also the nature of the threat posed by his prosperous grandfather Daddy Cary, “an enormous bullying man” whose teasing of both Ben and Burghardt takes uncomfortably intimate form. Ben’s habit of “spying” on inexplicable adult behavior leads him to empathize with Burghardt’s elderly Granny Mays, whose commitment to educate herself and her own arouses her neighbors’ antipathy—and to eavesdrop on the violent scene that effectively ends Daddy Cary’s reign of terror, though the lessons Ben learns from this traumatic incident are neither fully understood by him nor spelt out by McFarland. Prince Edward is earnest and compassionate, told in a hushed lyrical voice that’s often reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird; Ben is also an appealing protagonist indeed, and several of the other characters here are quite credibly complex. But McFarland diffuses his effects by layering in undramatized chunks of explanatory historical material—as if the adult Ben, looking backward, is composing a research paper rather than reliving his own perfectly lucid and revelatory experiences.
A near-miss then, though well worth reading.