This book is written by A. B. Westrick, my roommate all four semesters while we both attended Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned our MFAs in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She is a lovely, hysterical, compassionate woman and when this book came out I was so, so proud to know her because this book is smart, and gripping, and eye-opening. Also, the title? Brilliant. The cover? Perfect. I hadn’t read a lot of historical fiction about the period in our country known as Reconstruction, and I learned a lot. My favorite way to digest nonfiction, and historical fiction, and let’s be honest, pretty much any genre, is through children’s books. Does that surprise anyone?
One of the things this book explores is the Klan in Richmond, Virginia in 1867, where many families had lost husbands to the war and were struggling to survive. The Klan came along and gave families food and clothes. The first time the main character, Shad, tells what he knows of the brotherhood, he says, “I know it protects people. I know brothers ride the streets at night, keeping evil away.” Really? That was the Klan’s marketing message? Later, Shad is asked by a Klansman, “Do you promise to protect and defend the weak and innocent, especially the widows and orphans of soldiers who gave their lives in sacrifice for our noble cause?” Wow. I guess I always thought from the very beginning a Klansman knew what he was signing up for, he had a hatred for black people and being in the Klan was about persecuting and killing them.
This book is about how those with evil intent can disguise themselves as the good guys, can harness frustration and anger and sorrow and use it to do unspeakable things. It’s also about a lot more. It’s about how Shad becomes friends with a feisty, intelligent freed slave named Rachel. It’s about friendship and loyalty and history and how hard it is to do the right thing sometimes, but how important it is. I love the last line of Anne’s note to the reader: “My intention in writing this story was not to justify his [Shad’s] view, but to draw readers so closely into his world that they experience his emerging capacity to question his circumstances.” Well done, roomie. May we all have the capacity to question our circumstances and the courage to do what is right.