The white son of a minister active in the civil rights movement is forced to question the values he grew up with after he begins attending a mostly African-American high school in turbulent 1969 Chicago.
Shiflett (Hidden Place, 2004) tells the story of 14-year-old Simon Fleming, a white student who believes in integration—he participates in a boycott to end racist policies at the school—but whose skin color also makes him a frequent target of bullying and violence. After he tries to stop a group of black boys from beating another white student, he's rescued by a racist school cop, Officer Clark, who offers him protection in exchange for intel on the boycott. Other central characters include Clyde, a black classmate who tries to keep Simon out of trouble, and Simon’s father, Adam, whose own commitment to civil rights blinds him, at least at first, to the challenges his son faces. Most effectively (and affectingly) drawn among the supporting cast is Louis, a mercurial and often drug-addled classmate. Louis’ own minister father was killed while advocating for civil rights, and it is Louis’ complicated relationship with Simon that gives the novel’s most powerful moments their weight. Shiflett tends to let his scenes go long, and some plot elements feel overly familiar (Officer Clark’s act wears thin quickly, Simon’s requisite love interest isn’t given much to do). Still, Shiflett does a nice job illuminating a complex situation from multiple perspectives, and readers will find the book’s brisk final third—when various plotlines coalesce around rioting at the school—difficult to put down.
An imperfect but admirably frank exploration of the challenges of integration in the late 1960s.