Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
In the season of Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign, the stability of a small South Georgia town is threatened by racial stresses and strains. A racial slur is found on a school blackboard. A dynamic Afro-American minister threatens a law suit against the school system, challenging its treatment of Black students. Protagonist Molly Culpepper, a teacher at Alderson High School, is deeply disturbed by her inability to adjust the attitude and behavior of J. D., an embittered Black teenager whose conduct is disruptive and whose life path seems a path to incarceration.
Molly’s situation is difficult in several additional ways. A single mother since the death of her policeman husband, she is having trouble with her fourteen year old son Graham, who is going through the customary steps of rebellious teenage experimentation. Her father, a blunt and often crude character, is killing himself with alcohol. The school’s new principal is changing priorities in ways that seem counterproductive and that predict more hours of effort for the already overtaxed teaching staff. He is, as well, interfering with Molly’s “freedom of the press” approach to the school newspaper, which she advises.
Meredith builds suspense on many levels. Will the lawsuit aggravate the divisions within the community? Will J.D.’s threatening behavior turn violent? Will Molly lose control of her class and her career? Will the athletic competition spectacular between students and teachers raise the money needed to fund important school programs that are beyond the existing budget?
Will lies people have told themselves and others undermine trust and damage relationships?
Meredith’s title, The Color of Lies, resonates throughout the novel in many ways. We know how tempting it is to mask the truth about attitudes regarding skin color. We know have often lies are spoken and maintained to avoid bringing people pain or embarrassment – the so-called “little white lies.” In Meredith’s story, lies have kept from view the true facts about J.D’s father’s death and about a relationship between Molly’s late husband, David, and J.D.’s mother.
As Donna Meredith plumbs the practical and moral consequences of lies, she also builds a complex microcosm of the New South. Her novel is populated with a large cast of varied characters. These include her own family, the students in her classes, the other teachers and staffers at the high school, and many other townspeople, including Molly’s new neighbor, C. Lodge Piscetelli, at once a lawyer and a computer expert. Her portrait of a community, however, is more than a collection of its residents: it involves a sense of history, of braided cultural strands, of habits of mind that create fissures as well as bonds.
This novel magnificently captures the texture of small town life, just as it captures the tension between Molly Culpepper’s idealism and her growing awareness that she will have to let others take responsibility for their actions and not wear herself out trying to fix everything that she sees going wrong.
And, as Donna Meredith makes abundantly clear, there is plenty going wrong in America’s classrooms. Dedicated and talented teachers like Molly Culpepper make a difference, but the public school systems around our country are not meeting their responsibilities.
Yes, The Color of Lies is a serious novel that confronts serious issues. It is intense and often troubling. However, Meredith is able to instill a tonic humor and a soothing compassion that will buoy readers’ spirits. Perhaps these qualities allowed her manuscript to win first place in the 2010 Royal Palm Literary Award competition for women’s fiction from the Florida Writers’ Association.