Thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter has her share of problems. Her mother is more interested in her new husband and stepchildren than she is in Rose and her brother, Fred Lee. Long ago she left Rose and Fred Lee with their grandparents, and now she’s leaving to live in Chicago with her new family. Furthermore, Rose’s grandmother, Ma Pearl, favors Rose’s lighter-complexioned cousin, Queen — as do most of their other relatives — and lets Queen spend her days reading magazines and listening to the radio while Rose works in the cotton fields. She might not even let Rose finish her education.
But Rose is part of a black community in Mississippi in 1955, and so she’s far from the only person with problems. Upheaval is coming, not just to Rose’s family, but to her entire world. Her neighbors and friends are increasingly dehumanized, persecuted, and attacked. If they don’t find a way to stand up for their rights, things will get even worse — but if they do, it’s possible that many will lose their very lives.
“Midnight without a Moon” by Linda Williams Jackson is unflinchingly honest in its depiction of the harsh struggle faced by black people in this particular time and place. Jackson paints an all-too-believable picture of the way that living with perpetual anger and fear can cause members of a community to give up, and even worse, to turn on each other.
The older people in Rose’s life, having spent so many years just trying to survive, are terrified of change. Ma Pearl in particular lashes out at her own daughter, Belle, who is working with the NAACP to try to register black people to vote and to pursue justice for the recently murdered Emmett Till. Ma Pearl is adamant that black people should simply stay quiet and capitulate to the evils done to them, and she consistently blames the victims of killings and other abuses.
Rose, who longs to get away from Mississippi and have a better life up north, is increasingly on the side of her aunt Belle and others who are fighting for justice. But it’s to the author’s credit that she accurately shows the complexities of the various characters, instead of making everything simplistic. If the elders are frightened of change, it’s because they have good reason to be frightened, and because they only want to protect their community. Still, Jackson indicates that because of the efforts of those who refuse to back down, there may be hope, even for the frightened and traumatized.
The book is targeted to middle-schoolers, but I think it would probably be more appropriate for high schoolers. There are descriptions of violence, not graphic but still disturbing. Till’s murder and the murders of other black men — usually for registering to vote — are major incidents. Rose herself is harassed by white boys. Additionally, Rose’s aunt Ruthie is badly beaten more than once by her husband but keeps returning to him, another example of what happens when we’re afraid to change. Ma Pearl has no qualms about whipping or hitting her children and grandchildren, even knocking the adult Belle across the room during an argument. There is very occasional profanity, and racial slurs — “coon,” “spook,” “cracker,” and the n-word — are used by both blacks and whites.
Rose’s mother and aunt and cousin all get pregnant before marriage, and it’s hinted that another aunt may be sleeping with her fiancé. But despite all the dysfunction in the family, faith and church are an important part of their lives. We see them spending a great deal of time in church and drawing comfort from Scripture and hymns.
Some superstition is mixed in with their faith, as some of their church leaders argue that a person can’t be truly saved without getting “a sign.” But others clearly spell out that it’s all about accepting God’s grace through Christ’s death on the cross. Rose comes to understand this and eventually accepts salvation and baptism herself. When she does, she finds herself more patient and compassionate, even toward the haughty and unkind Queen.
“Midnight without a Moon” is often a very bleak story, but its emphasis on hope and faith even in the darkest hours ultimately make it an inspiring and a timely one as well.
Image copyright HMH Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.