“During the height of the civil rights movement, my family moved to a small, all-black town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where my father opened a clinic and mother Aura Kruger, taught English at the local high school.”
This book is a memoir, written by the youngest daughter Jo, but mainly told through the diaries of her mother Aura. At the time, the Kruger family was one of the only white families living in Mount Bayou. Aura kept journals from the time she lived there, so the book is built on those. Jo destroyed her own, but recreated her entries.
I have some seriously mixed emotions on this book. I understand that this is a memoir so this is her telling the story of her family. However, it comes across at times as very privileged and skates dangerously close to perpetuating racist stereotypes. Which is where I struggle, because I don’t think that was the intention of the author. Obviously no one intends on coming across as borderline racist, but I actually don’t even think they had racist views, privilege aside. It just comes across the way this is pieced together.
First, let’s touch on the privilege.
The first few chapters are from Aura’s perspective on her sudden move from a nice middle-class life in Boston to living in a trailer in Mississippi. The change is drastic, and according to her mother, she didn’t even have a vote. She simply went along with her husband, who decided this was what he wanted to do with zero input from his wife. Yes, it was the 60’s, but it doesn’t make him likable at all.
I had issue with how she complained, extensively, about her concern for where they were going to live. When offered that they should live in a “shack” like the rest of the town population, she nearly had a stroke. Coming from the perspective of someone who wanted to help end racism and bring change during this tumultuous time, she seems very self-centered. Even after she gets two trailer (not one, but two), and they have carpenters build them a connecting room, plush with all the luxuries of water, AC, power, heat and indoor plumbing, she never takes any time to consider how to help the town.
The most frustrating part of reading this, is that she makes friendships with people in this town. Yet, it’s never discussed or talked about how her family lives in drastic luxury compared with most of the other people. Or at least, that is how it comes across.
She mentions quite a few times her “worry” for their lack of heat, shoes, clothes that fit, etc. But, there isn’t any mention of her trying to do anything about it. She has connections to get three students full scholarships to an east coast college, yet she can’t raise money to buy shoes or clothes?
Which is my major problem with the underlying privilege of the book. She has her own views and standards, and insists on everyone meeting them. Take the three page example of teaching phonetics and the word ‘ask’ for a glaring example of that. Education was important to her. And I agree, and even see where she is coming from. But, shoes are probably an immediate problem she can help with.
Where we come near perpetuating racist myths is in Jo’s entries. Nearly every entry she talks about boys grabbing her and trying to reach down her pants. Of the 8 entries she has from her childhood perspective, 4 of them are about this type of molestation. She certainly makes it seem that every teenage boy in that town grabs her in inappropriate ways except for her three friends. Again, I understand this is her perspective, but she’s writing this from memory. If she didn’t want to perpetuate that racist myth, she could have worded these entries differently, or added a few that actually talked about other experiences.
Overall though, they just aren’t very likable. I think the biggest piece of enjoying a memoir is actually enjoying the people you’re reading about. I didn’t like the husband at all. He seemed cold and indifferent to his wife and children and never noticed their struggles. Either this portrayal didn’t do him justice, or he simply cared more about helping people other than his own family.
Aura doesn’t come across as very likable frequently either. She seemed spoiled, privileged, slightly arrogant and very self-centered. She complains about how her husband is oblivious to her unhappiness, yet seems absolutely just as clueless about her own children. The scene where she made her injured daughter get out of bed to create a “scene of familial tranquility” is absurd. Her attitude is described as Pollyanna positive but seems to be very passive-aggressive instead. She complains but then tries to spin it after complaining. It gets old.
Yet, when Jo revisits the town decades later, the scene she paints are like reading an entirely different book. People remember her cleaning tables for pinball money, and she seems to have good childhood memories. Yet, all that was recreated was the bad. For someone trying to bridge the gap in race relations, painting living in an all-black community as terrifying and miserable probably isn’t the right angle to take.
Her students even had more powerful stories about how she helped them. These memories from the students takes away from the self-righteousness and savior type attitude, and highlights more of what they remembered. It makes her seem actually more giving and helpful than she made herself sound. The journal entries were maybe focused on her own view of what was important, but again, perspective matters.
Of course, her own encounter with a boy who assaulted her left a bad taste in my mouth. But, that whole last section of the book was infuriating all around.
It’s probably not surprising that I didn’t particularly enjoy this book. I would have preferred to read a book that was less reliant on only journals and memory, and perhaps had included some of the impressions the students themselves had. It would have taken more of the white savior feel out of it, and made it more in depth and meaningful.
Thank you to BookSparks and She Writes Press for a copy to read and review as part of your pop up blog popportunity!