It is 1957. Alice grew up in rural Alabama, working the land with her family. Her mother died when she was young. Her sister Rosie took off for Chicago. Alice hasn’t heard from Rosie for years. And now, with her father’s death, she has to leave. The landlord got the worst of his effort to assault Alice. After she buries him, she boards a bus, heading for Chicago. But when the bus stops in a town where all the residents are “Negro” and there are no “colored entrances” to the train station, Alice is drawn to stay and make her life in New Jessup, Alabama. She is a gifted seamstress and she finds work in a store operated by a woman who becomes a mentor. She meets a local mechanic, Raymond Campbell, who lives on some acreage with his father. And she is faced, just at the start of the southern civil rights/voting rights movement with an array of ways to think about race, “equal” rights, and sovereignty.
For New Jessup has a terrible past and tremendous community pride that is balanced on a treacherously unstable concept. When reconstruction hit, the former enslaved residents moved to the other side of the railroad tracks in Jessup, a situation that made the white townspeople uneasy. Their part of town was called, “Negro Jessup,” until 1903. That is when the riots happened. White residents tore through Negro Jessup, stole everything in sight and threw the residents out. The survivors of Negro Jessup who stayed moved to undesirable swampland, in an area on the other side of the woods and founded New Jessup.
Ultimately, a lot of issues arise in this masterful book, about how the Black citizens of New Jessup have kept the peace with the white community of Jessup; about younger folks who want to see some change to ensure New Jessup has sufficient independence to withstand another 1903 charge; and about how the burgeoning civil rights movement’s philosophy of integration is at odds with New Jessup’s philosophy of intentional separation. The town itself is the primary character in the novel, with the elders committed to the way things have been for over fifty years, the outside agitators being other Black people from the national civil rights movement, and the young men and women in the town looking to make adjustments and bring about a new, New Jessup. The characters are uniformly well drawn as the townspeople find friction where there once was acceptance of all things necessary to maintain the status quo. The elders see the shaky relationship with the powers that be in Jessup as the “price to pay” to be left in peace. The next generation says that price is too heavy a price to pay.
So, this is a coming of age story of a town founded on violence and succeeding on terms that once worked for everyone. It is the story of a romance between a smart, poor Alabama farm girl who loves to read and her smart, formally educated and more sophisticated husband. It is a story of the many different points of view that come to play on issues of race, both within and outside the Black community, set in a time of tremendous focus and transition on issues of race “relations.” I cannot do this book justice, the lush lovely emotionally satisfying way this story is told. Just. Read it. A real favorite for me!