The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson
Integration is slow to arrive in Revere, Mississippi, population "20,000 and sinking" It's 1966, and Reverend Streeter is still waiting for service at the River Cafe lunch counter, 10-year-old Willie "Critter" Tate still has to drink from the "Coloreds Only" drinking fountain, and the well-coiffed Deanie Jackson can't work at Pearl's dress shop -- she can't even shop there.
However, the larger picture of the segregationist South that Johnson portrays is more nuanced and complicated than these now notorious images of Jim Crow. In The Air Between Us, integration becomes an issue that cannot be satisfactorily resolved through freedom riders, Northern "agitators," or the federal government -- change is inevitable, but the people of Revere have to bring it about themselves if they want to save their town from an equally inevitable ruin.
The book begins with a scene that perfectly captures the cadence of segregation as it exists in Revere. Billy Ray Puckett, one of the poor whites who lives on the outskirts of town, shoots himself in the gut while setting up his tree stand, and is discovered by Critter Tate, who drives him to Revere's hospital. First he tries to drop Puckett off at the hospital's black entrance, and is turned away, then has trouble getting the nurses to admit him to the white side.
After Puckett dies, the Sheriff's department orders an investigation, and begins to uncover the uneasy secrets about the true nature of relationships between Revere's black and white residents. At the center of the story are Cooper Connelly and Reese Jackson, the hospital's two doctors, Connelly is white, Jackson is black. The two work together closely, but have a strained relationship which is explained during the course of the Puckett investigation.
All the while, discontent is brewing over the mandated integration of Revere's hospital and schools, which is soon to take effect. Much to everyone's surprise, Connelly has progressive views on integration, and his efforts to bring about change peacefully draw the venom of reactionaries and racists statewide. As the ugliness builds and turns violent, the people of Revere have to make a decision about the future of their town.
Johnson's thematic thrust is buttressed by a strong cast of supporting characters, like Reese Jackson's unhappy wife, Deanie, and her next-door neighbor, Melba Obrensky, a light-skinned fortune teller with a mysterious past. While the book's idealistic ending may seem a little rushed and fanciful, The Air Between Us is an interesting and engaging look at how a town's black and white residents choose to deal with the ugly legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
If you like...: books about middle and upper class black families set during the height of segregation like Love by Toni Morrison, this book is for you. And if this book sounds up your alley, you might also like the most recent winner of the Bellwether Prize (an award for literature that addresses issues of social justice), Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.