The rift between black scholar Ruth Beans and renowned white novelist Avadelle Richardson is ancient history in Oxford, Mississippi, but its cause is unknown until Ruth—now frail, living with her son, his white wife, and their child, Dani—asks her granddaughter to retrieve an envelope and key.
With the key, Dani finds Ruth’s partial civil rights timeline and an unfinished letter. But Alzheimer’s disease claimed Ruth’s memory before she could reveal her secrets, ones she’s authorized Dani to share, leaving a tantalizing mystery. Dani’s parents are already stressed out, her dad an Army veteran of three wars with high blood pressure and her mom working two jobs to support the family, so Dani confides in her best friend, Indri, also biracial. Classmate Mac’s family (he’s Avadelle’s grandson) insisted he end his friendship with Dani, but he, too, is drawn into the search. Answers are rooted in the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the long, incomplete struggle for civil rights—especially the 1961 desegregation of the University of Mississippi, when thousands of U.S. Army troops defended the right of a black man to enroll, later depicted through the eyes of an African-American woman in Avadelle’s acclaimed first novel. The novel barely addresses Dani’s biracial experience, but that omission excepted, it ventures successfully into territory seldom explored by white authors, pondering who is entitled to tell a story and exposing slavery’s toxic legacy: racism, its persistent half-life our cultural nuclear waste.
A provocative, sensitive, and oh-so-timely read. (author’s note) (Fiction. 10-14)