When “all deliberate speed” becomes “all of a sudden,” not much changes.
Written from the author's own experience as an elementary school teacher, Sanchez’s debut chronicles one school year, 1969-70, during which Colleen Rodriguez and her husband, Miguel, are transplanted from New Jersey to Kettle Creek, Louisiana. Miguel, a Cuban émigré, will serve as a drill sergeant on a nearby Army base, and Colleen, a white woman, begins teaching second grade at West Hill, the “Negro school.” As a preface points out, Brown v. Board of Education, ordering desegregation, was decided in 1954, but many Southern school districts adopted a “Freedom of Choice” policy, which delayed integration of schools. But now, the federal government has mandated immediate integration. West Hill is closed overnight, and its elementary and high school students are shoehorned, no longer separate but still far from equal, into the hitherto all-white Kettle Creek schools. West Hill elementary pupils are shunted off into trailers near their new school, and their black teachers are let go, with the exception of two, including Evelyn, Colleen’s reluctant mentor. Frank, West Hill’s star football player, had hoped for an athletic scholarship, but at Kettle Creek High, he and the other black players are demoted to second string. He is forced to find a job to have any hope of affording college—and the prospect of Vietnam looms. This is only the beginning of many outrages to follow. Sanchez sensitively depicts this grudging desegregation and its many Catch-22s for the black students and teachers. When it’s time to fight back, Evelyn’s and Frank’s perspectives take over, and Colleen steps back; though, as an afterword suggests, Sanchez, a white woman, is quite aware that she is not an #ownvoices author, she isn't trying to write "a white savior story.” Percolating in the background is an underdeveloped murder mystery involving an unsolved hate crime against Frank’s late father. A major plot thread is left dangling while overattention to day-to-day minutiae feels like padding.
An intermittently potent illustration of the formidable obstacles to equality that remained—and persist—post–Brown v. Board of Education.