Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: The Road to Memphis

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: The Road to Memphis

Author: Mildred D. Taylor

Date: 1990, 1992

Publisher: Dial (1990), Puffin (1992)

ISBN: 0-14-036077-8

Length: 290 pages

Quote: “Y’all in trouble...Not you, Cassie...Rest of y’all are, though.”

It’s 1941, and sassy little Cassie Logan, the narrator of Taylor’s “Logan Family saga,” is in high school with her brothers and their friends. Although she’s aware that she’s a teenager, that she’s considered pretty, and that one of their buddies has a crush on her, Cassie isn’t her friend, Sissy, whose infatuation with one of Cassie’s brothers’ buddies has led her to get pregnant and say she’s not sure who the baby’s father is. Actually, Sissy confides to Cassie when they get a chance to talk, the baby’s father is definitely Clarence; she was trying to make Clarence jealous. All the teenagers, including Sissy, agree that Sissy’s uninhibited immaturity is “crazy,” but that marrying her is the right thing for Clarence to do. But poor, foolish Clarence and Sissy aren’t destined for a happy ending.

First we have to find out what’s going to become of Jeremy Simms, who has acted throughout the series as if he has a crush, not really on Cassie, but on her older brother Stacey. The way Cassie tells it, anybody would have to admire her big brother...but falling in love with Stacey Logan is especially dangerous for Jeremy, not only male but the son of one of the ugliest, most bigoted rednecks in Mississippi.

The character of Jeremy has always been handled with wonderful sensitivity. This is, after all, 1941; for anyone to have suggested outright that Jeremy may be homosexual would have been a crime. It’s bad enough that his feelings for Stacey have sensitized Jeremy to the race war that’s going on and the injustices Stacey and his friends and relatives have to deal with. Only Cassie, who’s been warned against Jeremy, notices what’s really going on with this odd, naïvely idealistic boy. Child readers are free to imagine that Jeremy is just an unusually idealistic, guilt-ridden kid. 

I appreciate this tactfulness and hold it up as an example to other writers (like the ones at Disney). Children can benefit from reading about characters whom adults may recognize as homosexual, without having more information about these characters' sexual lives or fantasies shoved at the children than a decent person would shove at a child in real life. Jeremy Simms is excellent.

Jeremy’s father wants Jeremy to be more like his three big, mean cousins. Nothing sentimental, naïve, or (don’t say effeminate) about that lot. They’re bullies who just love to exploit the racial tensions of their time and place in order to torture Stacey, Cassie, and Jeremy. Not brave enough to challenge Stacey and not quite vile enough to molest Cassie, they try to provoke the Logans into hitting first by bullying their friends. In the Simms goons' first real scene, the two groups of teenagers meet in the woods, hunting. One of Cassie’s and Stacey’s buddies is a fat kid; the Simms boys think it’s funny to sic their dogs on him. When he climbs up a tree, falls out of it, and breaks a leg, Stacey tells Jeremy their friendship is over.

In their next scene the three louts turn their attention to Clarence, who has been having terrible headaches ever since he joined the Army. Blood pressure? Brain tumor? A reaction to some of the vaccines and medications for which Army recruits were lined up? It’s 1941, so we’ll never know. Anyway, when the louts make a joke of knocking on Clarence’s aching head, Cassie’s shy, quiet admirer, Moe, picks up a crowbar and lays Jeremy's Cousin Troy flat. Jeremy, who was waiting in the truck, quickly hides Moe under a tarp in the back and drives away.

If Troy dies, Jeremy knows he’ll be considered an accessory to murder. Even if Troy gets up and walks away, Jeremy’s family will disown him. They would have disowned him anyway, so Jeremy can afford not to worry too much about that. In the Army he'll be with Stacey in spirit.

Meanwhile the kids take up the job of helping Moe get out of Mississippi. They plan to go with him all the way to Chicago. They have a fictional version of the sort of road adventure real kids had in 1941: dirt roads or none, low gas mileage, few gas stations, and no hope—unless you happened to break down within sight of the home of a fellow “motor enthusiast”—of replacing any broken parts on a Sunday. Cassie is threatened, and basically mugged, just for looking wistfully at a gas-station restroom door marked “White Ladies.”

Clarence runs out of over-the-counter painkillers and wants to check into a hospital, but of course it, too, is “for Whites only.” Segregation in American hospitals was supposed to guarantee ethnic-minority Americans opportunities to succeed in the health care professions; in practice it guaranteed many “colored” types (the term that included Native Americans in some States) no professional health care at all in the many places that had no sizable "colored" population. Clarence’s symptoms are so ominous that it’s not clear whether hospitalization would be of any benefit to him. In any case, all that can be done for him is for hospital staff to refer him to the home of a private nurse who can at least give him painkillers and a place to lie down. He doesn’t go to Memphis.

With all the excitement they’re having in the small towns along the road, the kids are surprised, when they get  into Memphis, to find people talking about “what’s happened.” While they were camping in their broken-down car and trying to find a fan belt, Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Along the way Cassie finds a temporary job and falls in love. It seems to disappoint some people nowadays as much as it used to reassure many people, even in the 1990s, that most of the high school girls who still want to be “just friends” with high school boys are not lesbians. Cassie has been levelheaded enough not to become obsessed with any of her buddies. She’s even levelheaded enough to act sensible about it when she gets a chance to dance with, and even kiss, a handsome, charming, sophisticated grown-up man...but readers, who are taken into her confidence, know she’s feeling as thrilled by this man as poor old Sissy felt about poor old Clarence. The difference is that Cassie is intelligent. 

How true is this book? How true are any of the Logan Family stories? Mildred Taylor hasn’t given readers a memoir to compare with these novels, but she has consistently affirmed that they’re based partly on stories her father, “who lived many adventures of the boy Stacey,” used to tell. They are not, however, the stories of any one particular family. The Logans and their friends become, in their “saga,” representatives of all the African-Americans in Mississippi during this period, when all Euro-Americans, even the nicest ones, are still from the enemy side and any interracial friendship is downright dangerous. At the same time, the stories adhere to the rule that nothing really bad should happen to the major characters: Cassie gets harassed, while Jacey has already been raped in Let the Circle Be Unbroken; Stacey is allowed to walk away from trouble, while T.J. has been brutally beaten in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. Things like the horrors the Logans keep surviving did go on in this time and place, but in real life all of them did not happen to the friends of two strangely unscathed children. The Logans are, therefore, a fictional frame on which ugly bits of history are displayed. People who don't enjoy this series complain that there's too much ugly history and not enough attention to the family love that sustains people like the Logans in real life.

I’m a fan of this series--have been ever since I read the school bus scene in Roll of Thunder, which still makes me smile--but I have to warn those who’ve not read the books yet that none of them, not even The Friendship and The Gold Cadillac, which are thin volumes containing short stories and color pictures, is really a children’s book. They’re too grim. They can leave readers feeling angry. The Road to Memphis, in which so many teenagers are doomed to heartache, is not the most violent novel in the series but may be the saddest.

So, to whom is this series recommended? To people who are free from both depression and Positive Thinking, who can appreciate stories about people who survive and resist injustice without any temptation to blather, “See, they’re surviving, so the abuse and injustice aren’t really bad things, they’re actually good for the characters’ characters.” Abuse and injustice are not good for anyone’s character. I think that’s why I like the Logan Family series so much. Growing up amidst the injustices of an unofficial war may be helping Cassie and Stacey develop qualities of toughness, reserve, and resourcefulness, but just being a farm family in the Depression would have done them that much good; the race war is also helping them develop qualities of resentment, bitterness, and suspiciousness. And it’s also preparing them to embrace a political strategy that, although sometimes useful to them, was planned to serve other people’s interest more than theirs, and that may not have been the best strategy.

We can’t change history; we can only learn from it. The Logan Family stories show us how good people were systematically prepared to become pawns in a movement toward totalitarianism. Cassie’s and Stacey’s future politics are being refined in a crucible of us-against-them, which-side-are-you-on violence. A girl who’s just been mugged is naturally likely to be wide open to the propaganda that that’s the way things are supposed to be in her state, but that a more powerful federal government can force change...even though force is what created the hostility in the first place, even though further use of force is likely to work against Cassie within her own lifetime. Nobody cares to remember the story of how the hospital policy that banned Clarence from the hospital was created by a demand that government create more jobs specifically for “colored” health care workers. Cassie is going to vote for a bigger, stronger, more coercive federal government, probably all her life. This actually happened. The Logan Family stories tell us why.

By the time these stories began to be published the whole world had watched the sequel—the smallest, most  helpless-looking children in cities being marched into forcibly integrated schools between armed guards, harassed by the trashiest adults in those cities, while private schools had integrated themselves freely and happily. Ruby Bridges’ memoir, Through My Eyes, would later ask the question why African-American community leaders would have wanted to subject her and other harmless children to the torment she lived through. Because some of them were “living the adventures” of Cassie Logan, in real life, in 1941, that’s why.

The Logan Family stories are therefore especially recommended to those who want to work toward the improvement of society. When we're tempted to feel that “anything would be better than this,” they remind us to learn from history rather than repeat it.