Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas

A journey of shocking discovery in the heat of Freedom Summer
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It is 1964, and the beginning of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Celeste Tyree, a black University of Michigan student, makes her first journey south to help to register black voters and teach in a Freedom School. In Denise Nicholas's novel, Celeste - the proud and pampered daughter of Shuck, a Detroit bar owner - learns to live in a shack without an indoor toilet at the edge of a small town where a black man was once lynched.

During that summer, when three civil-rights workers are murdered, Celeste discovers a foreign land where black people step off the curb to let whites pass, and men with Ku Klux Klan robes draped over the back seat drive by in the heat of day. She preaches non-violent resistance but finds that at least one man carries a rifle, while others in the beleaguered black community are too afraid to challenge the "Jim Crow" segregation laws. As an outsider, she must be careful not to divide these people further; she can't break through the silence surrounding the death of a black child who may have been murdered by her father.

For Celeste, the journey south mirrors an inner quest. She has always had mixed messages from her divorced parents about race. Her mother thinks Detroit "too Negro"; her father calls himself "a race man" and disapproves of Celeste's white boyfriend: "a Negro woman with a white man would always be lonely". In Mississippi, she can no longer escape the questions surrounding her identity.

Denise Nicholas has drawn on her own experience as a Freedom Rider to write this absorbing first novel. It can veer too close to documentary in its attempts to put down historical markers, and some sentences seem to bear the weight of the whole narrative. But Freshwater Road works best when Nicholas stays close to Celeste, and Mississippi.

The novel draws its moral strength and momentum from Celeste's deepening involvement with the impoverished black people she has come to help. Nicholas is particularly good at building tension, when Celeste's group try to register to vote, for example, and evoking everyday life in the rural black community: the sweet iced tea and "pork-laced greens", the contrast between the almost formal manners and the fervent speeches in church, the unrelenting heat.

She pulls us into this world and never lets us forget the shocking fact that such a place, such oppression, existed just 40 years ago, in the world's most powerful democracy.

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