By Jean Schroeder, The IDEA School, Tucson, AZ, and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
Jean Schroeder and Holly Johnson discuss four historical fiction novels that are relevant to current issues this month. They revisit two novels that are considered classic novels while also introducing a couple of newer books.
JEAN: Mississippi Bridge is a short story based on the characters she has developed in her books about the Logan family. Set in the deep South in the 1930s when Jim Crow ruled, 10-year-old Jeremy hangs out on the porch at the Wallace Store. His father and two older brothers are inside playing checkers and talking with others. It is pouring rain and has been for weeks. Everything is wet, soaked, and muddy. It’s the day the weekly bus goes through town and Jeremy greets all the people showing up to travel. The story presents several confrontations that illustrate Jim Crow in action that raise anger in me as well as feelings that are disheartening and discouraging. Rudine is not allowed to try on a hat because she is black; Josias is screamed at and threatened because he has a job offer. Jeremy’s father, with his hot temper and short fuse, makes Josias change his story because there are white men looking for jobs so Josias must be lying. But Jeremy is friends with Josias. He hears the whole episode from the porch and Josias won’t talk to him when he comes back onto the porch. Many more people arrive to catch the bus including the Logans, and there are not enough seats which means the black people are told to get off. Without revealing more, I am including the subtitle: A turbulent day takes a horrible turn.
I sometimes find that the situations as described in this story are thought to be exaggerated, but my gut says they are accurate or maybe even toned down. This bias is real and it is scary to know that it still exists today. I also see issues of class raised in this book. The Logans, a black family, own their farmland while Jeremy’s family were tenant farmers, renting the land they farmed. Jeremy’s Pa has strong opinions about that. He draws solid lines in the sand and dares anyone to step over. How does one live, then or now, being so closed-minded? It seems more likely to cramp you in.
HOLLY: Yes, unfortunately, from my perspective in the here and now, I am not shocked by the events in Mississippi Bridge. I am shocked, however, that such attitudes and actions still exist today. Or perhaps I should say incredulous. Seriously, I cannot believe the elements from the 1930s Jim Crow era still exist today. The things, the thoughts and myths about others, people and societies hold onto.
For such a short book, it is powerful. The book has irony written all over it, just as some of the current policies (legal or du jure) are also ironic. I appreciated Jeremy, however, who was of his own mind, and saw people for who they were—people, regardless of race or class. As you note, he greeted EVERYONE. That is another point of irony, when you think about it. Didn’t matter what his Pa said (how Jeremy was raised), he had his own truth, but had to safeguard it, and perhaps even hide it from those closest to him. That is also ironic. Those who supposedly know us best—our families—we hide so much truth about ourselves from them. I imagine in Jeremy’s situation it is for good reason.
As I start to think about our book selections for this month, Jean, I am starting to see a pattern of secrets. How much the characters hide from others, and perhaps the truths they hide from themselves. What do you think?
JEAN: YES! Secrets are found in all of our books. It is interesting that the most important secrets seem to be the characters’ thoughts that, for one reason or another, they keep close to themselves. Jeremy’s understanding that the Black characters are people first and foremost is interesting. It is his secret as he never verbalizes it, yet his actions and reaching out reveal his secret. His secret becomes an agent for change. A secret that is kept is how the black characters feel about Jeremy. We see their actions, they nod and exchange pleasantries. But there would be major confrontations if they showed any signs of friendship with Jeremy in front of a crowd of white people. So as readers we do not know what the Black characters are thinking. Their actions could be indicating bias or it could be a choice to avoid confrontation in front of a crowd.
Something else this book makes me think about is humiliation. It is such a negative power play and, in most cases, totally unnecessary. People are pretty good at humiliating themselves without others chiming in.
This is a book that is as relevant today as it was when first published. Keep in mind there are many older texts that are outstanding and good fits for classrooms and pleasure. I love this author and would encourage readers to pick up other books by Mildred D. Taylor.
HOLLY: Yes, Taylor’s canon is amazing, so powerful. Mississippi Bridge is just a small taste of the themes Taylor addresses in her works. The concept of humiliation is interesting here, because at the root is humility, which can be a powerful attribute in response to the complexities of the world. But when others attempt to demand humility from others, yes, humiliation is the result, and really, inappropriate regardless of situation. Of course, then I look at our books for the month, and I think about how often humiliation is apparent in many relationships at one level or another. The more I read, the more I find I don’t quite understand the things human beings do to one another. Seems rather naïve, but it’s really about how deeply we don’t understand ourselves and our insecurities that have us creating barriers or difficulties for others.
As with Out of the Dust, Mississippi Bridge presents issues that we are still confronting us as individuals, and as communities and nations. The beauty of literature is that it gives us a space to think about these traumas—they are traumas—and perhaps reflect upon the actions we can take to disrupt the ongoing trauma they represent.
Title: Mississippi Bridge
Author: Mildred D. Taylor
Illustrator: Max Ginsburg
PubDate: June 1, 1992
Throughout Spetember 2021, Jean Schroeder and Holly Johnson discuss four historical fiction novels that are relevant to today’s issues. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!