The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield; Abrams Books for Young Readers $19.95 47 pages. (Ages 10 and up)
Three years before the Supreme Court declared segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education, a 16-year-old high school student named Barbara Rose Johns led her black classmates out of Robert R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in a strike to protest the unequal conditions at their tar-paper shack of a school. This fascinating book, amply illustrated with photos, profiles a little-known hero of the civil rights movement. Barbara, a top student, recruited other classmates and came up with the plan for a strike in secret without alerting parents or teachers. The book goes into great detail about how the plan unfolded, complete with a diversion to draw the principal away on the appointed day. The background details about Barbara’s family, her grandparents and parents, illuminate the decades of unequal treatment, the small daily humiliations black Americans experienced. Among the high personal costs of the strike: local stores and banks denied credit to Barbara’s family and others; the Johns’ home in Darlington Heights burned down; and after a threat was made against Barbara’s life, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Montgomery, Ala., to finish high school. Johns later worked for many years as a librarian in the Philadelphia public schools and died in 1991. Today, the illuminated bell tower on the Prince Edward County Courthouse is dedicated to Barbara and her classmates.
– Jean Westmoore
Bury This by Andrea Portes; Soft Skull Press (256 pages, $15.95)
If one could hear novelist Andrea Portes at work typing, the keystrokes might sound something like machine-gun fire: rapid, furious bursts of word bullets, aimed directly at the reader’s heart and wasting no extra ammunition in getting there. Portes’ work first gained attention with her debut, 2007’s gripping coming-of-age tale and thriller “Hick.”
Set in small-town Michigan, this book dives even deeper into thriller territory than Hick, focusing on the murder of a young woman in 1979 and the 25-years-on reinvestigation that’s launched when a group of college students produces a documentary about the unsolved crime.
Beth Krause is mostly remembered as the ideal good girl: vaguely pretty, a bit shy, an angelic soprano in the church choir. But Beth’s thoughts about herself clue us in that her self-image ran far afield from the one she projected: “A young girl, almost twenty-two. With a white rat head of hair, albino hair, yes it’s a little stringy and washing it takes too long, it hurts my arms, what if someone else could wash it? Honky skin. White as paper. Almost blue. You see, a ghost. I get to be a young-looking sort of ghost with white mouse hair and gray saucer eyes and a stupid little nondescript form skinny and stringy and I’ll put a dress on me and no one will know.”
Know what? Well, that’s part of the thriller aspect.
As the story plays out, we meet various others, including Beth’s best friend, Shauna Boggs, once the trampy-attractive counterpoint to Beth’s simple beauty, now a sometime prostitute weighing 300 pounds and consumed with rage and jealousy, for mostly good reasons. After Shauna’s mom left when she was little, we learn, her father elevated Shauna to household-mistress status, eventually in every way you might not want to imagine. (Warning to the squeamish: That’s not even the most disturbing thing in the book.)
Beth’s parents – WWII veteran Charles Krause and his stunning wife, Dotsy, an Odessa, Texas, girl still able to turn heads and drop jaws in her 70s – bear unhealed emotional wounds they struggle to keep tucked away. Dotsy, with her “sable hair, ivory skin … and those green, almost emerald eyes,” causes one of the documentary makers to wonder if Beth “had inherited this grace? These willow eyes? This unassuming, intoxicating nature? “If so,” he muses, “you could see why she was dead.”
With that sentence, Portes captures the dark essence of “Bury This”: some people’s seemingly unquenchable, monstrous thirst to destroy beauty. In writing about it, Portes also creates something wondrous, like the glow of a single jellyfish, floating gloriously amid an endlessly dark ocean.
– Joy Tipping, Dallas Morning News