In a time and place without moral conscience, fourteen-year-old Ansel knows what is right and what is true. But it is dangerous to choose honesty, and so he chooses silence.
Now an innocent man is dead, and Ansel feels the burden of his decision. He must also bear the pain of losing a friend, his family, and the love of a lifetime. Coretta Scott King Award winner and Newbery Honoree Julius Lester delivers a haunting and poignant novel about what happens when one group of people takes away the humanity of another.
Fourteen year old Ansel is growing up in the small town of Davis, Georgia in 1946. He spends most days working in his family's general mercantile store. When he is given some free time, he prefers to roam in the woods around town with his best friend, Willie. Willie works as a stockroom employee for Ansel's father Bert. This friendship has a pivotal role in the story, as Bert is a bit of a white supremacist, and Willie is black. Ansel's mother Maureen is the complete opposite, actually growing quite disgusted at her husband's opinions but he shrugs off his beliefs as "hey, it's the way the world is.." Maureen gets to the point where she fears Ansel possibly one day being influenced by his father's racism, so she does her best to come up with a way to get her son out of town.
Before that happens though, Ansel sees multiple sexual attacks brought upon Mary Anne, a neighborhood girl he cares deeply for; attached to those assaults, Ansel later witnesses a hate crime that leaves an innocent man dead. For the rest of his life Ansel is wracked with guilt over not being more vocal about bringing actual criminals to justice, rather than allowing innocent bystanders to take the fall.
Even being just under 130 pages, this story is quite the historical fiction gut punch! One of those ones that never promises to be a cheerful or even fun read, but most definitely an important one. The town of Davis in this story is one chock full of racists, with just a few residents -- among them Ansel, and Esther Davis, a member of the richest and one of the most racist families in town, having earned much of their wealth from running a cotton plantation primarily staffed by black employees. Esther is one of the few white people in town who offer medical help to assaulted black employees (usually females who have been raped by her nephew Zeph) or bring food to much older employees who struggle to maintain the strength for cotton picking. Any push toward change in the general thinking of a society is a start, but as you can imagine, with the winds of change largely being carried by just two or three people at a time, it can be an uphill battle for some time.
Author Julius Lester doesn't hold back in his desire to educate his readers on this grim period of history. In fact, there are pages at the back of the book just of charts showing the lynching percentages for all the lower 48 states between 1882-1968. The inclusion of this historical data shows the reader that hate doesn't see color, whites and blacks alike being victimized (though the higher percentage is with the African American community). While lynching may not be as common an occurrence in today's world, racism and hate crimes most definitely are still going strong. The take away from this novella is that the hate just needs to end. Full stop. A tall order, I know, one that may not happen in this lifetime, but stories like this one inspire me to keep doing my part to push for more love, everywhere to everyone. It makes me hopeful for a time that sees the end of the killing of innocents, the end of putting everyone in a category, the end of racial blanket statements altogether -- "white people be like" / "black people be like", etc. Stories like Guardian make me hopeful for a time when people can just embrace the awesomeness of cultural variety!
Though Lester's writing style made this as much of an enjoyable reading experience for me as this sort of topic can be, this book is truly a tough read. But as I said earlier, an important one. Sometimes reality and truth stings but you still gotta feel and hear it to make you a better, more empathetic person.
POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING: There are a number of scenes that prove tough to stomach in this short story. Among them, a teen girl getting violently sexually assaulted and a frog slowly being dismembered by a sociopath while still alive.