On September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, four young African American girls went to church. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley never got to return home that day. They were killed in a racially motivated bombing at their church, 16th Street Baptist Church. Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund is not the story of those four girls, but instead is a tribute to their spirits, who do occasionally appear. It is the story of the city of Birmingham itself at that turbulent moment in history, of its people, black and white, and how the Civil Rights movement played out there. Told through the viewpoints of different characters from different ends of the racial divide, it's not a pretty story, but it is one that bears revisiting.
Sena Jeter Naslund is a favorite author of mine, and this powerful book is probably my favorite of her books. She is an author who is a master at taking epic subjects and making them into unforgettable stories.
Book Jacket Description:
From the acclaimed author of the national bestseller Ahab's Wife comes an inspiring, brilliantly rendered new novel of the awakening conscience of the South and of an entire nation.
Written with the same scope and emotional depth as her previous award-winning novel, Four Spirits
is set in Sena Jeter Naslund's home city of Birmingham, Alabama, a city
that in the 1960s was known as Bombingham. Naslund brings to life this
tumultuous time, weaving together the lives of blacks and whites, civil
rights advocates and racists, and the events of peaceful protest and
violent repression, to create a tapestry of American social
Stella Silver is an idealistic, young white
college student brought up by her genteel, mannered aunts. She first
witnesses the events of the freedom movement from a safe distance but,
along with her friend Cat Cartwright, is soon drawn into the mounting
conflagration. Stella's and Cat's lives are forever altered by their new
friendships with other committed freedom fighters.
A student at a
black college, Christine Taylor is inspired to action by the examples
of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Reverend Fred
Shuttlesworth. She courageously struggles to balance her family
responsibilities, education, and work with the passions and dangers of
the demonstrations. Her friend Gloria Callahan, a gifted young cellist
and descendant of a runaway slave, tries to move beyond her personal
shyness and family coziness to enter a wider circle, including blacks
and whites, men and women, all involved with the protests. Lionel
Parrish, teacher, preacher, and peddler of funeral insurance, battles
his own demons of lust and self-preservation, while New York activist
Jonathan Green gives up a promising career as a pianist to work for
racial justice in the South.
These characters all add their
voices to the chorus that makes up this symphony of innocent children
and the mythic elderly, the devoutly religious and the skeptical
humanist, the wealthy and the poor, the city and the country. Poignant
and evocative, rich in historical detail, and filled with the humanity
that is the hallmark of Naslund's fiction, Four Spirits is a compelling tale that transcends tragedy and evokes redemptive triumph.
Author's Notes: When
I was a college student in the early sixties in Birmingham, Alabama, I
promised myself, if I ever did become a novelist, that I would write
about the acts of courage and tragedy taking place in my city. I would
try to re-create through words what it was like to be alive then; how
ordinary life went on, how people fell in and out of love, how family
members got sick, how people worked ordinary jobs, tried to get an
education, worshiped, looked for entertainment, grew up, died,
participated in the great changes of the civil rights struggle or stood
aside and watched the world change.
There were many horrors and
haunting events but none more powerful than the murder of the four young
girls to whom this book is dedicated. In my imagination they stand in a
sacred circle, a ring of fire around them. I do not step into that
Circle. That is to say, I do not try to re-create them. Their families
and friends are holding them dear the way they really were.