Mon February 9, 2004
Forty years and six volumes of fiction after living through the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, AL, Naslund had achieved huge success with the novel Ahab's Wife, and has done in fiction what Diane McWhorter has done in prose: told her version of the story of that time and place.
Sena Jeter Naslund was a student at Philips High School in Birmingham when the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was assaulted on the sidewalk outside as he attempted to integrate that school. She was a student at Birmingham-Southern College during the marches and demonstrations in Birmingham, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., which shocked the nation and galvanized the federal government.
Even then, watching the fire hoses, the German shepherds, the police violence, she vowed to write about it, to tell the story of her city, the best she could. Now, forty years and six volumes of fiction later, after achieving huge success with the novel Ahab's Wife, Naslund has done in fiction what Diane McWhorter has done in prose: told her version of the story of that time and place.
It is a heroic effort and not entirely successful. Naslund chooses not to construct her novel around the experiences of one protagonist, although there is one?Stella Silver, a character clearly standing for Naslund herself. She opts instead for a large canvas, a wide tapestry of characters and events. She does not use any of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing as characters?they, the four spirits of the title, seem off-limits to her, sacred.
But she tries to show the reader what a couple of dozen other citizens of Birmingham were doing and feeling. She has created not only fictional representations of actual figures such as Rev. Shuttlesworth and Bull Connor, but also faculty at Miles College, the owner of a downtown department store, civil rights workers black and white, and, most audaciously, Ryder and Lee Jones.
Ryder is an ignorant, violent Klansman who revels in savagery, including the repeated beating and rape of his own wife. Naslund tries, I think not very successfully, to depict this brute as human with frustrations and grievances of his own. It is a valiant effort. He may be in pain and one of life's losers, but I hate him anyway.
In fact, spreading herself too thin, fictively and emotionally, may be what causes this novel not to fulfill its great potential. There are too many characters, too many settings, too many parallel plotlines which converge too seldom and too arbitrarily. And as with any historical novel concerned with events within recent memory, we know, in outline, what happens.
We know the church is bombed and the girls die and integration is slowly and painfully achieved. Naslund struggles uphill to create suspense against all this knowledge. After such knowledge, what suspense?
But this novel, while long and sometimes too slow-paced, is worth the reader's efforts. Naslund is a smart writer. She creates scene after scene, in the city cemetery, at a sit-in, on the streets, in the Klansman's kitchen. And on occasion, though not as often as we would hope, her writing soars. A funeral sequence near the end is as good as anything in Ahab's Wife or nearly anywhere else.
And, throughout, the reader is aware of Naslund's powerful love-hate relationship with Birmingham. Birmingham is to Naslund what Dublin was to James Joyce. He left his home city but never stopped thinking about it, set almost all his fiction there, and, sitting in a Paris caf?, could name the shops on a given Dublin street, in a row.
Readers will see in Stella's movements this same despair and devotion, as she is driven nearly mad by the ugliness of her fellow Birmingham citizens as they ghoulishly celebrate JFK's assassination. Stella wanders about downtown, seeing and not seeing, in stream of anguished consciousness, Russell Stover's candy shop, the YMCA, Bromberg's, Lollar's camera shop. Stella and Naslund have Birmingham in their bones. Naslund needed to write this book and now she has. I look forward eagerly to her next.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.