Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Air Between Us

Just like a smooth cup of coffee always goes down pleasantly and settles warmth in the soul on a cool morning, such is Deborah Johnson's the air between us.

This book combined southern comfort with a deep knowing of the characters before we even read a first word. Black or white, poor or not, if you have southern roots, you have an understanding of how closely the lives really are lived down in the Delta, or in Meridian or Money or even little Revere, Mississippi, the setting of this satisfying book.

My daddy, his siblings, and my step-mother all came from a small town in Arkansas. Growing up, I could hear little phrases and knowing that resonated back to their early years in the south and up north in their transplanted town, they never left the hospitality and resonance of living below the Mason Dixon Line.

This book brought an understanding of race and class, culture, and family in a way that the sociological, political, and historical readings on my shelf miss, this novel did what a novel is supposed to do - made me feel the heart and soul of Dr. Reese Jackson and his striving and Dr. Cooper Connelly and his wanting, or the quiet pushing against convention of the not-sure-what-race-she-was Miss Melba or the light-bright-nearly-white-Northern-raised Mrs. Dr. Jackson.

I savored this breezey novel in the month of December as one of our book club selections. All of us, women over forty, experienced this novel with a bit of knowing and bit of resolution that as much as things change in this country, some things will never change.

Central to the novel were the changing events of 1966 Mississippi and the slow move of integration of the public school and the new public hospital being built. There was still this duality of living so closely, there were still black maids like those described in The Help, yet living so far apart, there was the white side of town and the black side, the colored entrance to the hospital, and the less-than-equal-but-separate-educational system. There was the unspoken rule that ten was the age of separation less there be race-mixing. And there was the deep reality of the poor, rural whites that they were even further removed from the mainstream than the educated "Negroes" that they despised, they even realized their "whiteness" was no longer the only commodity they needed for acceptance.

This book held in the background the central themes of the Civil Rights Movement and mentioned it almost as an aside during a cool afternoon sipping sweet tea and eating caramel cake on the porch. It was happening, change was going to come, but like the Mighty Mississippi, it would happen at its own pace in this town. Like many of the smaller towns in the south, they feared and loathed the federal government (the whites) and they hailed them as heroes (the blacks) of change.

I felt this book could just as easily been about 2011 and the Occupy Movements that swept across the nation in the fall. While it was just as much about race with undercurrents of love, mystery, and abuse, it was also about greed. The busting of unions or forming of unions and the faint light of equal hope that was shining among black and white poor workers - they knew it was more of them than the rich planters who were abusing and exploiting them. Yet, even, this book did not hold that as a rally cry or central theme. It was simply the events that set in motion when a little black boy walked into the front entrance of a big white hospital with a down-country, poor white, bleeding man.

This book satisfies, just like my morning coffee. There really is only air between us.

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