August Read of the Month: “Hush Puppy,” by Lisa T. Cresswell

Lisa Cresswell

Lisa Cresswell

Reviewed by Ana Reyes

Corrine Lamb earns her nickname, “Hush Puppy,” in the opening pages of this young adult novel by giving away her lunch – a sack of hush puppies – to Jamie Armstrong, a poor boy who’s just moved to town. It’s a fitting introduction to her character, as later on, she will sacrifice much more than her lunch for Jamie.

Hush Puppy takes place in the small town of High Rock, North Carolina, where the fact that Corrine is black and Jamie is white is enough to incur the wrath of his alcoholic father, the concern of her family, and the derision of their fellow high schoolers. Cresswell, who herself is from North Carolina – and who, when not writing novels, is an archeologist – creates in High Rock a stage for star-crossed love. Corrine works with her Memaw at a diner that hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s, and in many ways the town doesn’t seem to have changed much either. “Maybe they added booths after segregation,” Corrine says of the diner, “when they had to let black people eat there too.” This, it seems, is the extent of the town’s progress. Racial intolerance drives Corrine and Jamie into the swampy forest behind her house, where their friendship blossoms into romance. She dreams of being the first in her family to go to college, and he is a talented writer who is forced to play football by his abusive father.

Jamie’s poetic chops earn him the nickname “Shakespeare,” but in High Rock, that is not necessarily a good thing. He keeps a secret journal, into which he records his thoughts, writes poems and transcribes the verses of poets like Pablo Neruda. His father wouldn’t approve of the journal so Jamie entrusts it to Corrine, and it is partly through his writing that she comes to love him. The journal is their first secret, but it won’t be the last. Later, when a tragedy rocks the town – a fatal accident to which Jamie is the only witness, casting him automatically under suspicion – Corrine lies for him so that no one will know he was there. What follows are the frightening consequences of dealing with the police while black in a place like High Rock. As her Memaw says, “Colored folks don’t call the cops, Corrine. It’s just trouble you don’t need.” Sure enough, Corrine’s attempt to help Jamie winds up hurting her, and she begins to question whether their relationship can withstand the ensuing strife.

Earnest and accessible, Corrine’s story is well-paced and full of dramatic questions to keep the reader turning pages. Certain characters, like Jamie’s father and Trisha, a snobby cheerleader whose father owns Corrine’s house, are slightly one-note, serving their role as antagonists but never developing much beyond that. On the other hand, in such a compact story, it is perhaps best not to linger on anyone other than our two star-crossed leads. This is, after all, their tale, and Cresswell devotes a good portion of it to establishing their relationship. This is where the heart of the book lies – in the teens’ hope for a better future – and not in the mishap that nearly tears them apart, which is given relatively little page time. For this reason, it is a hopeful book, and a good choice for young readers, particularly those learning about Shakespeare in school.

References to The Bard abound in Hush Puppy, from Jamie’s nickname, to the scenes set in their high school English class, in which Corrine and Jamie are both asked to read lines from Romeo and Juliet. Cresswell is strategic in assigning her characters roles from the play which nicely underscore their predicament; at one point Corrine must play Juliet opposite the white star of the high school football team, with whom she’s never seen eye to eye; and he is a mismatched Romeo indeed. What follows is one of the book’s most tender moments, in which Jamie publicly confesses his love for her, thinly veiled as literary analysis. “Juliet is wishing Romeo wasn’t a Montague,” he says, “and Romeo is telling her he’ll be anything she wants.”

This leads, ultimately, to the book’s major dramatic question: Can love flourish between two teens, one black and one white, in a place like High Rock? Or will their circumstances send Corrine and Jamie the way of Romeo and Juliet? While the answers to their predicament may strike older readers as tidy, this does not detract from the pleasures of the narrative. In Hush Puppy, Cresswell has created an endearing female protagonist whose plight softly echoes that of Juliet’s in a briskly-paced drama with plenty of heart.

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