Candlewick, 9781536222555, 320pp.
Publication Date: April 19, 2022
Description from Indiebound.org:
“Award-winning author Linda Williams Jackson pulls from her own childhood in the Mississippi Delta to tell the story of Ellis Earl, who dreams of a real house, food enough for the whole family—and to be someone.”
This book has been on my radar for a while now, but I had not read it until last week. That’s a year out of my life that I will not get back to recommend it to kids and others.
Since the era portrayed is one I lived, I’m in denial about defining this as historical fiction, which it undoubtedly is. In fact, I recently noted an academic conversation about a book based in the 1990s which was also defined as historical fiction. I need to get over myself and identify that this book and the story it offers has standing (and deserves honor) among the other titles I’ve shared here.
Ellis Earl is an unforgettable character whose time and place in American history is rarely shared. Stories about the Civil Rights era and heroes tend to focus on historically familiar situations and folks, from Ruby Bridges to Rosa Parks to MLK, Jr. himself. Most that I’ve read, and I’ve read quite a few, focus on denials of school access, or interracial struggles and conflicts, or the politics of change. Or all of the above.
In this case, though, the story is one lesser know except to those who lived in such conditions, m especially in the deep South: isolation, destructive levels of poverty, overcrowding, all-Black schools with teachers who heroically pursued better lives for their students, and the ways in which laws were changed for the better but were actively denied within small towns and regions of the country that were common outside the spotlight. This was especially (and life-threateningly) true in the Mississippi Delta. Author Jackson drew on her own memories as well as her awareness that hers (and theirs) was hidden history to generate this remarkable and important novel.
Ellis Earl’s family members and their struggle to survive in the poverty areas of Mississippi after Civil Rights laws and anti-poverty programs were in place is unforgettable. It’s an indictment of willfully ignoring human rights as seen through the eyes and lives of Ellis Earl and his family and community. Locals applied changing laws and judicial orders and programs of support selectively, in racist ways that will be eye-opening. The reality of systemic racism is demonstrated without finger-pointing or personifying individual “evil” groups or characters. Rather, the impact of social actions/inactions speak for themselves in their impact, connecting with readers who will care deeply for the lives revealed.
Despite the struggle and injustice of circumstances, though, the story itself glows with hope, optimism, and individual growth. The surprising and satisfying element, which feels entirely credible, is the way in which one teacher and one “kid” are able to move the dial on Ellis Earl’s own life and on the lives of his family. Make no mistake, though. Even characters with minor roles play significant parts in the unfolding of the story. Each is distinct and appears as an individual with wants and needs, hopes and dreams, and circumstances that could, SHOULD, be improved.
Ellis Earl’s point of view reveals to readers from any background an opportunity to reflect on their own feelings about friends, family, self-image, and setting goals.
Starting today, and making up for lost time: highly recommend.