Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
This novel portrays the outer and inner worlds of two young women growing up in Birmingham, Alabama when it became the flashpoint of the Civil Rights Movement. The chapters contain subsections that alternate the consciousnesses of Letitia and Martha Ann, one black, one white, as they process the momentous changes that are going on in their city. Of course, Birmingham is two cities: one black, one white, with minimal interaction until the spring of 1963.
Part One, titled “The Civil Rights Years,” is by far the longest section, spanning the period of the girls’ high school years and their first two years of college. The first couple of years are the most action-packed, as they follow the major historical events. Ms. Turner artfully combines the growing up of her fictional characters with the Birmingham-centered actions of the important movement leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Abernathy, Rev. Shuttlesworth, and the firebrand Rev. Bevel.
Letitia, who participates in the Children’s March, at first only learns how to be angry. Her experience of being assaulted by the harsh streams from fire hoses used for crowd control leads her to back off from active participation while struggling with her growing anger. Typically, she had been protected from the realities of racial injustice by her parents and grandmother. Embraced inside of her black community, until the movement shook up Birmingham she had little awareness about how bad things were.
While her friend Mae is committed to attending the superficially integrated University of Alabama, Letitia sees herself as helping the black community by attending Miles, the local black college and then teaching in the black schools. Her counterpart, Martha Ann, also becomes a teacher. Ironically, a year after college graduation this child of a racist father is assigned to a black school. She is the only white teacher there, and she quickly learns what it’s like to be a minority non-person.
The black woman who does housekeeping chores for Martha Ann’s mother is Letitia’s mother, but the families have had no meaningful connection – or even recognition.
The author does an excellent job of setting Letitia and Martha Ann into richly described families and exploring the dynamics within each family. Letitia’s father is a fine man, but he doesn’t want to make waves. He knows his paycheck depends on keeping a low profile and accepting the status quo. Through his outlook, and in many other ways, Ms. Turner examines the enormous power of sheer inertia. How can small numbers of people counteract that inertia?
March with Me succeeds as a dual coming-of-age novel that explores America’s coming of age in dealing with its race-conflicted heritage. Throughout, it’s as if Letitia and Martha Ann – alive within their communities’ invisible walls – are talking to each other without knowing it. At the end, the author devises a scene in which they must talk to one another; in their courageous personal intimacy lies the hope for the future.
Dialogue is the novel’s major story-telling device. The pace and vitality of the book suffer somewhat from it being so dialogue-heavy. And yet this is what makes it a superb teaching text. Through the characters’ words, especially Letitia’s, the experience and lessons of the historical moment come alive.
Letitia’s words are special for two reasons. First of all, her sections of the novel are presented in the first person point of view, while Martha Ann’s are handled in third person. Secondly, Letitia is by far the more dynamic character. Martha Ann is much more oblivious of what’s going on around her, though her teenage angst is well-portrayed.
The novel’s utility as a teaching/learning/discussion choice is enhanced by a list of thought-provoking discussion questions.
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