(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann OCT 30, 2005)
In the summer of 1964, students and other volunteers, both white and black, converged on Mississippi to help register black voters in an environment hostile to their efforts. Although segregation and second-class citizenship for blacks had officially ended in the United States, little had changed in the Deep South. Drinking fountains and restrooms that no longer had "Whites Only" signs were still off-limits to blacks (or Negroes, as they still called themselves), who were expected to avoid certain areas or else risk severe beatings, or worse. Blacks stepped off sidewalks to let whites pass, and local law enforcement made sure that they entered back or side doors in public buildings. In the midst of this Freedom Summer, three college students–– Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner––disappeared and were later found murdered. In this atmosphere of struggling civil rights and racial hatred, Denise Nicholas has set her impressive debut, Freshwater Road.
Celeste Tyree is a nineteen year old University of Michigan student who decides to volunteer for the One Man, One Vote movement despite the dangers. The office stations her in Pineyville, Mississippi, a town a few miles from the Louisiana border. There, she lives with Mrs. Owens, an older woman who helps Celeste learn the ways of Pineyville. Celeste's sponsor, Reverend Singleton, drives her back and forth between the Freedom School where Celeste teaches children about black history and self-expression, Mrs. Owens's house, and her nightly voter registration classes for the adults who wish to be among the first blacks to vote in the state. This is dangerous work: shots get fired through windows at night, blacks are arrested and beaten for no reason, jobs are lost for trying to vote, churches––the centers of black communities––are targeted. Even worse, the civil rights cause angers some blacks as much as it does the whites. Through all this, Celeste perseveres, although she's not always sure she belongs in this place far from her native Detroit. She longs for the safety of home, and she doubts that she can overcome years of racial hatred to get a handful of blacks on the voter rolls.
As counterpoints to Celeste's story, her father Shuck and his experiences during that same summer give a Northern perspective. While conditions are not ideal in the North, the freedom there––and the opportunities––contrast with the closed world of Mississippi. The blacks of Pineyville do not have indoor plumbing and refrigeration is a luxury not many have. There, they can be shot at for owning a car. In Detroit, Shuck runs his own business (although he used to run numbers on the side to make ends meet), drives a Cadillac, and is more concerned with the restless, dangerous black youth than he is with the white man. In Michigan, a black girl can go to college; in Mississippi, the children are barely educated. Shuck worries endlessly about Celeste's safety, for he knows the risks she faces, but in the end, he can do nothing to protect his headstrong daughter. After all, she takes after her daddy, a "race man," who takes pride in who he is and is willing to fight for it.
The author, who starred in both "Room 222" and "In the Heat of the Night," is known for her performances portraying complex women. In her first novel, she proves that her talents run deeper than acting, as her solid, sometimes beautiful, writing evokes her subject matter with the same elegance and intelligence she brings to her roles. Most of her characters are complex and believable, and her plot unfolds with a natural storyteller's logic. Although the author founders occasionally by neglecting certain subplots and characters who seem destined to play major roles, the overall result far exceeds most first-time novels.
Nicholas seamlessly weaves the history of the civil rights movement into the more intimate story of one young woman alone in a strange, hostile place. This cross between commercial fiction and history lesson gives this novel its force. Accessible and direct, the novel offers the author's own version of Freedom School in the context of a compelling narrative.
- Amazon readers rating: from 165 review
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Freshwater Road (August 2005)
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- ChickenBones interview with Denise Nicholas
- Washington Post review of Freshwater Road
- Curled Up review of Freshwater Road
- Civil Rights Timeline
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About the Author:
Denise Nicholas was born in July 1944 in Delaware. She graduated from the University of Michigan.
She is best known for her role of Harriet DeLong on the TV drama, "In the Heat of the Night," to which she contributed as a writer.