Normally I go to the library with a plan. However sometimes, when I'm doing a lot of driving for work, I just dash in and grab a book quickly. Normally I have pretty low expectations for these books. Something has caught my eye, the description or the cover-art, but I have no idea what to expect.
The Lions of Little Rock is a book I just happened to encounter. It's set in 1958 Little Rock. Not tumultuous 1957, known for the Little Rock 9 but 1958. I've always enjoyed history classes but I had no idea that anything interesting happen in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958.
But boy did it. In 1958 in an effort to avoid integration, ALL the public high schools in Little Rock were closed. There were special elections, recall elections and lots of fascinating complaining. I loved the history, especially since it was history that I never learned in school. But this isn't a history book, it's a novel with a historical backdrop.
This is the story of how 12 year old Marlee found her voice. Marlee doesn't talk. It's not because she can't, she talks to her sister and her father, but because she's afraid to. She's an exceptionally gift student, especially when it comes to math. But talking doesn't nearly as easily as her multiplication table.
Until Liz, a new girl comes to school. She befriends Marlee. As they understake a history assignment together, Liz teaches Marlee to speak up. It's the first time Marlee has had a true friend. Then one day Liz disappears. Even though the teacher's claim she's sick, word quickly spreads that Liz wasn't what she appeared. She was black "passing" as white.
Marlee struggles to understand what that means. How could Liz be white one day and colored the next? Yet eventually Marlee decides that it doesn't matter. The girls attempt to be friends, despite the dangers, parental disapproval and many mishaps along the way. This feels surprisingly believable in the context of the story.
The story touched on a lot of issues without getting preachy, integration, racism and even touches upon sexism when Marlee notes that all the NASA scientists are men.
The story also doesn't oversimplify characters. I like the fact that characters who seem bad in the beginning, aren't all bad by the end. They're struggling to unlearn what they've been taught and re-learn how to think for themselves. Racism isn't something that just dies one day, but something that children are taught and must come to terms with.