What It Is: Historical Fiction set in 1960s Anniston, AL
What It’s About: Billie Sims has her eyes opened to the latent prejudice around her when the Freedom Riders’ bus gets mobbed at its stop in Anniston (her home town). She starts to see how she has been [unintentionally] racist towards her family’s maid, particularly as she gets to know Jarmaine, the maid’s daughter. The girls end up sneaking off to ride a bus to Montgomery so they can see the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. in person. That night, they are part of the infamous scene where a mob traps the congregants of First Baptist Church along with the Freedom Riders and MLK.
What Works: This particular event (the mob at the bus in Anniston) doesn’t get a lot of press in the Civil Rights-related works for middle grades, and it’s worth bringing it to our attention. The church members’ demonstrated faith in Montgomery is also notable. Historically, the African American community has often found strength to persevere from their Christian faith, and that doesn’t come through in very many novels. The girls’ trip together was a nice touch, too. Neither of them could have made that trip without the other; both of their races were required for the different situations.
What Doesn’t Work: The writing style is a bit clunky at times, veering into telling instead of showing. This happens a lot in first person narratives, particularly when the author is trying to communicate a particular “message.” Billie’s awareness of her own prejudice feels a little heavy-handed. In addition, I kept thinking of a book like Stella By Starlight or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in which the main characters are African American instead of white. Seems to me it’s worth hearing that side of the story to balance out these little white “messengers of change.”
What I Think/Recommend: I would very much love to see a middle grades narrative nonfiction piece about these events, and since the author actually had some interviews with Janie Forsyth (a white girl mentioned in the book) and the African American organ player’s son, it seems to me that there’s a good start to such a book. Either way, Night on Fire is a fine addition to a library’s holdings on similar-themed books.
I received this book from Albert Whitman in return for a fair review.