Four Spirits: a Civil Rights Novel

Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund is a powerful, if at times aggravating, novel about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, the year in which four little African American girls were killed in a church bombing, an event around which much of the novel is built.  It’s unabashedly poetic at times, almost to the tune of “look, Ma, I’m writing,” and would have benefited from thinning by at least 100 pages (it weighs in at 519 pages), but these are quibbles compared to what it accomplishes.  For me its dramatization of history in the making through the personal stories of vivid and diverse characters, black and white, racists and integration activists, makes for an unforgettable experience.  During the course of the novel I felt as if I were living in Birmingham in that tumultuous time of violent social change.  It’s not an easy experience nor should it be, but it is a remarkable, important one and one I’m grateful to have had via this powerful novel.

According to the dust jacket, Naslund was a student at Birmingham-Southern College in 1963 when the events of history and the novel were unfolding.  As she describes, “One evening back then, as I stood on the street corner waiting for the 15-Norwood bus, I vowed that if I ever became a writer, I would tell the truth about Birmingham as a witness and a minor participant in the struggle for racial equality.  It took me forty years to acquire the technical skill to begin writing this story in the inclusive way the material demands.”  One can feel Naslund’s intense engagement with the material, and while she might have been tempted to write it all from Stella Silver’s point of view, the young woman whom one can guess is a stand-in for Naslund, she makes a tremendous creative leap to write deeply from many different characters’ points of view, a whole spectrum of personal and political stories that are interwoven into a gripping tapestry of Birmingham as a veritable racial civil war was taking place there.

One of her greatest successes, to me, was writing a Ku Klux Klan creep named Ryder, who is pure evil racism brought to life, and whose physical and emotional abuse, sexually assaults and humiliation of his wife seem right in keeping with his violence and hatred of blacks.  His wife, though traumatically subjugated by his violence and anger, finds subversive ways of getting back, and is another tour de force of characterization. Stella takes up too much room in the book, and seems unrealistically erudite at times, quoting poetry and being too well versed in music perhaps, but she is also a compelling young woman trying to find her identity in a world that is going through incredible death and birth pains. The novel is so rich in character portraits that maybe it is too rich in them, in that at least in the beginning it is hard to keep up with who is who.  But stay with it and you will be rewarded.

In conjunction with this book, I’d recommend watching the PBS documentary that was aired this May called “Freedom Riders.”   You can watch it online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/watch

It’s another fascinating history lesson about the civil rights movement, which will bring you to tears at times and amaze you as you see behind the scenes regarding what the Kennedy Brothers were thinking and doing as Freedom Riders rode buses into the heart of darkness that was the South in the early ‘60s.  It makes a great companion piece to Four Spirits, and at least for me, it made me appreciate and understand all the more the courage and commitment that the people involved in the Arab Spring are displaying in our own time as they struggle and are willing to die for justice, democracy, and dignity.

And now, if you’re feeling moved and inspired by the stories of the civil rights movement, get up off your seat and onto your feet and sway to the beat of the amazing Mavis Staples singing “Jesus is on the Mainline.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1CuusVEJyg

“If you want your justice, tell Him what you want…  If you want equality, tell Him what you want…  Lord, I want to be free…tell Him what you want… Call Him up and tell Him what you want…”

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