Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

I think some authors are reluctant to be realistic about the racism of white people in the 1950s--especially the racism of white children.  Because, really, who wants to read a book narrated by a racist kid?  So instead they give their white protagonists an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes precious innocence about race that seems completely unrealistic to me.  So you can see why I was worried I wouldn't like this book.

Fortunately, in The Lions of Little Rock, Kristin Levine doesn't rely too much on the innocence of her narrator.  Marlee is a 12-year-old girl in a town where the mayor would rather shut down the high schools than integrate them.  By the time the novel begins, she's already witnessed the 1957 riots against integration, and while her father supports integration, her mother remains vehemently opposed.  Though Marlee does form an unlikely friendship with a young black woman, it's because [spoiler alert] the girl is passing for white at Marlee's school [end spoiler]. 

The theme of the novel is finding your voice.  At the beginning of the novel, Marlee is so shy that she barely talks.  By the end she's writing letters and making phone calls and doing oral presentations in class.  One of the ways she builds her public speaking skills is by practicing talking to the lions at the zoo.  Hence the title.

In a twist on the theme, Marlee's mother says at the end that Marlee "listens to lions," as a way of explaining how Marlee finds the courage to stand up for integration.  However, it's not just Marlee who finds her voice--it's a whole host of white people who were drowned out by the extremely vocal racists of Little Rock in 1957.  In the words of the pamphlets Marlee helps distribute: "Saying what you believe is as important as thinking it! Speak out for our schools!"

Although the theme is well developed, Marlee's transformation is remarkable.  And by remarkable, I mean kind of unrealistic.  At the end of the novel, she engages in acts of physical bravery that seem out-of-character for a girl who, just a few months ago, couldn't answer math questions in class.  And while the author decenters things slightly by setting the story in the year after the Little Rock Nine, it still feels pretty familiar.

Basically, I thought the book was solid and likeable, but not individually distinct enough to take the Newbery.

No comments:

Post a Comment