The earnest, accusatory latest from the versatile Alabama author (Ahab’s Wife<\I>, 1999, etc.), this time about the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham in the annus horribilis of 1963 and thereafter.
The bombing of a black church in which four young girls (the title’s presiding “spirits”) are killed and the ideal of nonviolent resistance preached by Martin Luther King provide the background for a busy melodrama in which a dozen or more prototypical black and white characters work out their individual and common destinies. The central figure is Stella Silver, orphaned since childhood and sympathetically attuned to the plight of second-class citizens—to the extent that she undertakes dangerous volunteer duty teaching at a school for black children. Stella is matched in nobility by her college friend, wheelchair-bound Catherine (“Cat”) Cartwright, and by angry black colleague Christine Taylor. As the summer in “Bombingham” heats up, and injustices and atrocities multiply, other major roles are filled by heroic Korean War vet TJ La Fayt (the object of particularly virulent racial violence); Christine’s sensitive and artistic prize pupil Gloria; KKK stalwart Ryder Jones and his abused wife Lee (whom Ryder tutors in bomb-making); and Stella’s second fiancé (after she’s dumped his insufficiently saintly predecessor), Cat’s brother Don (“He was like Alan Ladd crossed with Rock Hudson”—hmmm). In case you’re thinking the latter might have some redeeming human flaws, be advised that he’s also a Peace Corps volunteer. Reverends King and Ralph Abernathy make cameo appearances, and the voice of Sheriff “Bull” Connor is heard throughout the land. Things end with the requisite sacrifices and martyrdoms, and the death of a celestial black matriarch, who, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, has “endured.” As social protest, Four Spirits is commendably passionate and partisan; as fiction, it’s overexplicit, contrived, and stocked with posturing, lecturing cardboard characters.
A great subject, poorly treated. Surely Naslund can do better than this.