Monday, July 20, 2015
Freedom Summer: A Review
Wiles, D. (2001). Freedom Summer. Aladdin Paperbacks, New York. Illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue.
It's a bit sad that Freedom Summer came when it did. I had requested from the El Paso Public Library around March, and it finally came in in July. It took all that time after my request for a copy to be found, despite there being a few listed among the EPPL's collection. In any case, we at last are able to look at Freedom Summer, the story of two boys and their friendship. One is white, one is black, and that is what makes this friendship so unique in its time.
Joe, the narrator, talks about his best friend, John Henry Waddell. He is the son of the family maid, Aunt Mae. Joe and John Henry spend their days going to the local creek to swim, and then Joe gets ice cream for himself and John Henry, who being black, cannot go in.
One night at dinner, Joe learns that a new law will allow blacks to go to all public places. That includes the local swimming pool. Joe is so excited because now John Henry will be able to go there, and they can swim together at the pool. When they get to the pool, however, they find that the pool was being filled in with tar. The local government has decided to close the pool rather than allow blacks to swim. John Henry and Joe can only sit at the diving board and look on the filled-in pool. Joe tries to comfort John Henry by suggesting they go back to the creek, but John Henry makes it clear he wanted to go into the pool.
With that, Joe decides to take John Henry to get ice cream, and to go in together.
Freedom Summer is a simple story told simply and sweetly. It is easy for children to read, using simple words that they will understand.
The subject matter is hard for children today to understand. We are long gone from the time of legal segregation, and Freedom Summer has an opening statement attempting to make clear what the laws were at the time desegregation took place. Deborah Wiles mentions also that some businesses and locations closed, some permanently, rather than integrate.
I don't see a flaw with Freedom Summer, perhaps apart from the idea that Joe would want to see the world through John Henry's eyes. Try as he might, Joe will never be able to see it with that vision because as a white boy, he has an advantage that John Henry will not have, at least until a generational change allows for it. I do find it a bit odd that Joe wouldn't see the difficulty of integration coming one day to the next.
Again, children are not born with prejudices. They are blessed with being free of preconceptions that plague the 'wiser' adults. They see things from different eyes. As such, Joe might not have understood that people would object to John Henry going to the pool. He knew enough to know John Henry couldn't go into the ice cream shop with him. He did understand how things work, but when it comes to the pool, he didn't. I found that a bit odd.
On the whole though, Freedom Summer has a positive message to give and tells it in a way children will understand. It ends on a positive note, with Joe inviting John Henry to go into the ice cream shop together. It's a small step to racial equality, but they are small boys.