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In a hazy mixture of fact and fiction, the Freedom Summer Project of 1964 comes alive in the contrasting narratives of civil rights leader Bob Moses and fictional volunteer Tom Morton. The unfathomable oppression of rural Mississippi during its black voter registration drives is depicted with faultless clarity, the result of Heath's ten years of research, though at times the story is so fact-laden that it seems more like a penetrating historical text than a work of fiction. The novel begins with the voice of Tom Morton, a white, midwestern college student whose motivations, earnest though naive, reflect those of a whole generation of students swept up by the idealism of Camelot. Tom describes his experiences in the rural town he was assigned to--doing tasks that range from persuading an already tyrannized people to risk their lives by registering to vote, to depicting the beatings he witnessed and of which he was also a victim. The summer begins with promise, but the dangers and obstacles of the situation quickly become clear: The bodies of three missing CORE workers are found, harassment becomes life-threatening, and sexual and racial tensions begin to splinter the group's unity. Tom's chapters alternate with the steady narrative of Bob Moses, a New York teacher who went south to battle a virtual police state. With him, we follow the progression of the early civil rights movement--from the nonviolent teachings of Dr. King to the increasingly separatist doctrine that spread as real political changes slowed. The writing here has a journalistic feel to it, the characters presented like anonymous witnesses. Still, despite a sometimes wooden and clumsy style, first-novelist Heath presents an illuminating portrait of the time, fascinating for the smaller events he uncovers, chronicling the bravery of those who didn't capture the national spotlight. An absorbing look at one of America's darkest and most courageous moments.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 1571310126
Page count: 350pp
Publisher: Milkweed