Last September, Joyce Hostetter was our first Master Class Teacher on writing Middle Grade books. It is my privilege to share her next book (unfortunately, the last in the Bakers Mountain Stories series), EQUAL with you.
When I went to the river that day in 1959 I didn't expect to meet a colored boy who loved birds like I love my cow. I didn't know what all I'd learn from him or that a mean old drunk would come along and force me to see myself as I never had before. I didn't realize I was face to face with a muddy wide river. I didn't think when I went into eighth grade that a teacher would name my strengths and inspire me to be even stronger. I didn't know that I'd learn to speak up while measuring my words, to hold back when I wanted revenge, or to imagine an enemy as my friend.
EQUAL is the story of two boys–one white and one Black–becoming friends despite their differences, hard feelings, and an act of senseless prejudice. But that only scratches the surface.
EQUAL is also about what it was like to live in a small, rural town in North Carolina in 1960 on the eve of civil rights. Segregation was the norm. As 8th-grader Jackie Honeycutt finds out, the atmosphere of prejudice not only dictates what school and church Jackie attends, but it leaves his new Black acquaintance, Thomas Freeman, and his family in constant fear of potential harm to themselves or their property.
Mrs. Cunningham, Jackie’s teacher, begins the school year by writing Abraham Lincoln’s quote on the chalkboard: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them into my friends?” This question haunts Jackie throughout the book and (as you can tell from the cover) is EQUAL’s theme. Jackie wrestles with jealousy towards other kids at the 4-H competition; he struggles with anger towards a classmate who constantly mocks him; and he feels irritated towards the woman who leads the local Home Demonstration club and snubs his mother. But most of all, he has to come to resolve that dilemma with Thomas. It is not until he truly empathizes with Thomas and Thomas’s family does he realize how he can answer Lincoln’s rhetorical question.
In the last third of the book Jackie is staring at Bakers Mountain from his front porch and thinks, “One thing I was figuring out was–as long as white people didn’t know Negroes personally, we could never understand their viewpoint. Thomas had educated me on things I never even thought about before.” (p.206) That is Jackie’s moment of truth which leads to actions that surprise him, are character-revealing, and lead to the wonderful conclusion.
I have blogged about the importance of making secondary characters a vital part of the story; there are many other characters in EQUAL who are strong and well-crafted. Readers will be happy to see Ann Fay get reunited with Imogene, her friend from the polio ward in BLUE and now she and Junior are happily married (finally)! But the other person in EQUAL who I want to mention is Jackie’s mother. Her character arc is shown as she goes from being afraid of what her neighbors will think when a Black family spends the night during a snow storm to saying to Jackie, “Your father and I have been wrong. I was wrong for letting Blanche scare me away from doing the right thing. I believed her when she said poeple would think we’re communists. And she was always saying integration could bring violence. I was scared, Jackie.”
That conversation ends with her encouraging Jackie to invite Thomas over so she can really meet him. Jackie doesn’t know it–but his learning to make friends with his enemies–changed not only him–but his parents too.
When I went into the new year, 1960, I didn't expect to be snowed in with a colored family who deserved freedom as much as I did. I didn't know what all I'd learn from them or that a personal enemy would make me care enough to join their fight. I still didn't know how to cross that muddy wide river. When I went to graduation that nightI knew I wasn't happy with my speech. I didn't know that Maribelle would show up and I'd see Thomas in my mind's eye. I didn't imagine that because of them, and the two Jackies, and all the brave peoplewho sat at lunch counters and marched in the streets, I'd change my words midsentence eand wade right into that muddy wide river. But I'm glad I did.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
I’ve had the privilege of being Joyce’s beta reader and read several drafts. You will read the completed story of how Jackie recognizes his racism and deals with it. But I saw how Joyce built the book. She knew Jackie was someone who talked first and regretted his words later. She knew he was a 4-H kid who loved his cow, Lucy, and would learn big lessons when he showed her at the county fair. She knew that fears of bombs from Russia, Communism, and integration would be part of the setting. She had the characters of course–she’s been creating stories about the Honeycutts ever since Ann Fay’s father left for WWII in BLUE.
But Joyce didn’t know Jackie’s backstory and why Thomas didn’t trust him. I was on the sidelines and watched her figure out that BIG piece of the puzzle and then weave it into the book.
I tell you all this because some of you reading this are writers, like myself, who realize the enormity of pulling together all of the many threads that go into a novel–and I want to encourage you that even a master writer like Joyce works HARD to accomplish this. Others of you are readers. I want you to know that a story as magnificent as Joyce’s doesn’t just happen. There are hours and hours of drafting, writing, reorganizing, deleting, revising, and tweaking that go on behind the scenes.If you are new to my blog and haven’t heard of the Bakers Mountain Stories, please check out my other posts: AIM, BLUE, COMFORT, and DRIVE. (In this blog and this one, Joyce explains the order in which the first three books were written.)
A RECOMMENDED BOOK!
EQUAL takes place sixty years ago and is equally as relevant today. Read it with your kids, grandkids, and students. Explore the Author’s Note at the end. Talk about it. I want to hear the discussions that happen as a result of this book–and I’m sure Joyce does too. Note: This review originally appeared here.