Freshwater Road, by Denise Nicholas

In this first novel, a college student from Detroit goes to Mississippi to help register voters during Freedom Summer (1964 for those who’ve lost count). Nicholas brings to life the culture of racism in that time and place. Yes, there is plenty of racism today, but it was different then, more overt and acceptable. She also gives us a brilliant yet unromanticised rendering of the African-American community in Pineyville, the small town where Celeste spends the summer. Even the minor characters are fully drawn. We see the dissensions among them as well as the way they support each other.

I had forgotten what it was like back then. It seems incredible now that when I first went to school, I got in trouble for drinking out of the “colored” fountain (I thought the water would be blue and purple and green). Incredible that communities like Pineyville could decide on their own who could vote and what tests they had to pass before being allowed to register. That a man, a minister, could be beaten by the sheriff for daring to walk into the courthouse by the front door.

It is no easy thing to write about situations that outrage us. How to describe appalling injustices without ranting? How to relate the unbelievable so that we believe it? Nicholas uses three techniques, and manages them so effectively that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel.

First, she presents a rich portrait of Celeste’s life—teaching the children in Freedom School, complaining about having to use an outhouse, falling in love with another volunteer—and then drops in the moments of horror. Also, we experience those injustices through Celeste’s eyes and her genuine, yet mixed emotions: surprise, confusion, fear, anger. Finally, Nicholas anchors Celeste’s story with real incidents we all remember: the Birmingham church bombing, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the discovery of the bodies of the three murdered volunteers (James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman).

There were several times when I was so upset that I had to set the book aside, but then couldn’t resist picking it up again. Has it really been forty-two years? So much has changed since then. Not enough, but still, a lot.

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