Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Musings: Crow

Crow Barbara Wright
Crow, by Barbara Wright is a children's novel set in Wilmington, North Carolina during Reconstruction.  I was so excited to read it because, as many of you know, I have become very interested in the racial history of America recently, and I wanted to see how the history is shared with children.

Crow is told through the voice of Moses, a very bright but poor fifth grader who lives with his parents and his grandmother.  His grandmother, Boo Nanny, was a slave on a plantation nearby.  She has a great wealth of knowledge and still works very hard to support the family; she never talks about her days as a slave, though.  Moses' father Jackson is a graduate of Howard University and works as an alderman and a reporter for the Negro newspaper.  His mother Sadie works as a maid for a well-to-do white family.  Moses grows up valuing education, something his father prizes highly, but also knowing the old stories and ways that Boo Nanny shares with him.  But as the 19th century winds down, racial tension is escalating and hints of Jim Crow are everywhere.  White supremacists take control of Wilmington and Moses' family and friends must find a way to survive the terror of it all.

This book was fantastic.  It has so much in it, I'm sure that a classroom discussion around the book could go on for days.  There are adult themes, certainly- mentions of and references to lynchings, mobs, rape and extreme intolerance.  I don't think this is necessarily a children's book.  But it's one that has so much that I hope parents and teachers use it to teach children about history.

The book is based on fact- in 1898, four of ten elected alderman in Wilmington were Black, and the state had even sent four Black representatives to Congress.  All that changed when the Red Shirt white supremacists began a reign of terror that, among other things, kept African-Americans from the voting booths.  Many prominent and middle-class Blacks were killed, injured or forced to leave their homes, fearing for their lives.  Barbara Wright tells us all of this in a very engaging and moving novel.  Moses is an excellent narrator, going from a naive and trusting child to an intelligent and thoughtful boy over the course of one summer.

I fell in love with his grandmother, who imparted wisdom through fantastic dialect.  For example, "That Mrs. Felton don't get herself exercised none over the brutality our womens endure at the hand of the white man.  This mixing done humiliated us, tore our families apart, and some society lady has the nerve to suggest that their precious womanhood be at risk."  I also loved the way Boo Nanny and Moses' father butted heads- one focusing on common sense and hard work while the other advocated education and school above all things.  I thought that was very realistically portrayed and showed the transition African-Americans were going through.  Moses' mother, too, had some important revelations during the story, all of which were sympathetically portrayed and added yet another layer of complexity.

America's legacy of slavery is a very charged and difficult one to face.  Many students, from their youngest days, learn about slavery but have no real concept of what it was, day to day, and the toll it can take on a person and a people.  It's easy to know things in theory, but much harder to allow yourself to experience the emotional vulnerability that comes, too.  Crow tackles so much of that, starting with the many, many horrors that slaves went through, the strained relationships that directly resulted from the institution, the legacy of broken families, and the lingering racism and segregation that we are still seeing the effects of today.  One of the most moving passages in the book is a conversation between Moses and his father.
"There's a lot more ugliness out there than I've led you to believe, and I haven't prepared you for it...I've been naive.  I taught you to live in a world I wanted to exist, not one that actually does...I raised you in the belief that what it took to succeed in life was the same thing that it took to be a good man:  honesty and hard work, courage and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.  But we're up against something I don't understand and don't know how to adapt to.  The intractability of hate."
In some ways, I saw this book as an almost direct response to The Help, though it's written for a younger audience.   The Help has gotten a lot of backlash and flak for its representation of the Civil Rights movement and the way it minimized the fear and terror and dangers that African-Americans involved in the movement faced.  Crow puts you right in the middle of the action, albeit about 60 years earlier, when many Blacks still had the hopes and ideals of being on equal footing with whites.  In some ways, it idealizes the African-Americans in the story and vilifies several of the whites in a somewhat melodramatic way.  But it's a wonderfully written, honest and absorbing look at an important and often-overlooked time in our national history.  Highly recommended.

Note:  There is one point that upset me.  As this story is based on historical fact, I assumed that the main characters were also based on real people.  But this is not the case.  I only found that out at the very end, and as a fairly momentous event occurs at the end of the book that I later found out could never have happened in real life because the character did not actually exist, I felt lied to.  Just so you know, going in, what to expect.

Note:  This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.

15 comments:

  1. This sounds like a great book Aarti, thanks for reviewing it!

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  2. I got on the wait list at my library for this after you told me about it. Can't wait to read it!

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  3. This does sound really involving and complex, and writing the book for a younger audience really impresses me because you are right, young adults today have no idea just how powerful and hateful slavery was during that point in history. I would like to read this one, but also to pass it along to my daughter, who is very socially conscious and would probably get a lot out of it as well. This was a really great and passionate review, and I enjoyed it very much. I will be looking for this one when I can. Thanks, Aarti!

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  4. Amy - I think you would really enjoy it.

    rhapsody - Yay! I thought of you when reading it, so glad it sounds appealing.

    Zibilee - Oh, I definitely think more younger Americans should read books about our racial history, and your daughter would get a lot from this book, I think.

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  5. There are adult themes, certainly- mentions of and references to lynchings, mobs, rape and extreme intolerance. I don't think this is necessarily a children's book.

    And yet, these are real things children of that time faced. Interesting how that works.

    Great review.

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  6. Sorry about the whole feeling lied to issue :/ But at least it still was a good book, and I would know now

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  7. I absolutely LOVE the cover design. However, based on the cover alone, I would've thought this was an old, old book. It looks very mid-century retro. I was going to commend you for hunting down books on a specific period of history from a time different than the present! It'd be interesting to see how a different era represented a moment in history differently than (or similar to) how it is represented in the present.

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  8. Wow, that cover design really is gorgeous. I'm surprised you felt lied to at the end -- I feel like I read based-in-fact books all the time without assuming the people are real people. Of course, usually the author sensibly puts in a thing at the front to say "Although this book is based on true events, the characters in it are my own."

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  9. Akilah - It's true, but I think many parents like to shield their kids from that as much as possible, rather than be blindsided by it in a novel, so I figured it was worth a heads up. I think it's a fantastic read, though, so maybe parents could read it first to see what they are comfortable with.

    Blodeuedd - Yes, it was a great book!

    Kari - You're so right! It does look very retro, probably because of that shade of yellow. I am not sure how many eras had real children's literature on race relations...but maybe there is stuff I just don't know about!

    Jenny - Now that you mention it, it IS surprising. But Moses' father was SO central to the story and to (what I thought) was the history, so I was a little upset that he just wasn't real at ALL.

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  10. This one has gone straight on my TBR list: thanks, Aarti!

    I do know what you mean about being surprised by elements that seem very "adult" in children's literature; I have the same reaction. I just read Astrid Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart, and it opens with the pain of one of two brothers dying, which also really surprised me (but somehow it manages to be a very optimistic and engaging and inspiring story).

    Here's a neat quote about fact and fiction for you, too: "In the end the truth of the story may only exist in the ability of the narrator to lie convincingly,because,as the saying goes,it takes two to lie:one to tell the lie and another to hear it. And in our age of vanishing horizons and disappearing worlds,we will need convincing lies,creative non-fiction,fictions even,to remake the world." Ken Wiwa

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  11. Wow, this sounds amazing, and it just makes me happy that it exists if that makes sense. I also agree with what everyone was saying about the "retro" cover design - very eye-catching.

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  12. I just finished. Great book! I so appreciate your bringing it to my attention. I did *not* feel lied to - almost all historical fiction uses made-up characters to interpret real events, and I did not expect Jack to be real (although I must admit that making him an alderman might have set up that expectation). But also I'm very used to going to the back of these books *first*, to see what is real and what isn't!

    What I really loved about the book was seeing Jim Crow and race hatred through the eyes of a young boy - how there was so much he just didn't get.

    What *I* would pick out as I hate this; I feel like I was lied to; was the COVER. I don't know if you could tell from an arc, but I got it from the library, and it features a white kid riding a bike, underneath a big crow. White kid riding a bike: GAAAAAH!

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  13. Oh, I guess your picture of the cover shows it...

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  14. Oh, I don't see that as a white kid! I thought it was just like a stencil outline of a kid, generally, and assumed he was Black...

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  15. Thanks for this really fantastic and engaging review. This is going immediately on my wish list as I know I want to read it, especially as you reference The Help and Amanda and I are reading more books about the period already :)

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