Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book’em.....take our poll!

FOUR SPIRITS by Sena Jeter Naslund

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book’em.....take our poll!

(March 31, 2005) When our respected bibliophile Betty recommends a book as "special," Book-'Em makes it the next month's selection. That is how we came to read Four Spirits, Sena Jeter Naslund's novel of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama during the early '60's.

This is a lengthy (500+ pages) book with multiple characters and the reader may have to work initially to stay focused and interested. ("But Betty said…..") Spanning the years 1963-1965, Naslund portrays a myriad cast, each in his/her own voice. They are black, white, educated, unschooled, racists, activists, married, single, parents, childless, Klansman, King devotees, blue-collar workers, teachers, preachers, students, moralists and sinners. All share their southern heritage, a time and place, and some personal challenge or handicap they wish to change.

The burgeoning Civil Rights Movement is the background and the stage for the dramas that unfold. Martin Luther King, Reverend Shuttleworth, John and Robert Kennedy, Bull Conner and other documented historical figures and events share this stage. Theirs is merely a walk-on role, however. The true heroes and villains are Christine, Lionel Pastor, Cat, Stella, Don, Agnes, TJ, Lee, Ryder and others, Naslund's fictional figures, all more real, more vivid, and more essential to the story of integration than those remembered others.

A member of our group commented, "It painted a picture of the times and brought back political memories." Another added "But it was just so much more real seeing it thru these ordinary eyes and lives." We were awed by and admiring of the courage shown by several of these individuals. We were horrified by others. In general, though many members were initially dismayed by the number of characters to keep track of, each became quite distinct and vivid and we found ourselves having strong emotional responses to each one.

Midway thru the novel you will find the intersection of all these lives. From that point onward, reader absorption snowballs just as the narrative does. 'The integration' of their lives mirrors, portends, and gives hope for integration of the races.

Every member of the Book-'Em group loved Four Spirits. Naslund is a magnificent writer. Though elegant and deft, there are times the novel seems more of a showcase for her prose than for the narrative itself. The format of alternating chapters, some only one page in length, made it more difficult to engage in the story. But these are minor complaints.

Discussion will obviously address questions of race and class as well as personal reminiscences of the historical events. Less obvious topics were religion and racial stereotypes. And we all felt the need to express the strong emotions certain characters or situations precipitated. This novel is achingly sad.

Book-'Em stands behind Betty. Four Spirits is special.

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