Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: The times, they are a-changin'

After hearing a half-hour segment of NPR's Talk of the Nation (the radio show that gets me through the work week!) featuring Carlotta Walls LaNier of the Little Rock Nine, I was inspired to pick up her memoir at the library—A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.

As a bit of a history lesson, the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education. When the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, was forced to integrate in 1957, Carlotta was the youngest of nine African-American students—known as the Little Rock Nine—that enrolled in the all-white Central High School. The ensuing crisis that eventually led to intervention by President Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne can be considered one of the most important events in the Civil Rights Movement.

U.S. History 101 tells you the story of the Little Rock Nine, but LaNier's memoir gives a perspective rarely seen. When an event becomes such a defining point of the historical record and when it seems so far in the past that it is hard to relate to, these events seem to just stick on the page of a history book. They don't come alive. We forget that real people went through this, that real emotions were felt and that people's lives were immediately affected by the stories we hear and read. LaNier details the day-to-day excitement, anxiety, and fear that defined her three years at Central. We see her mind develop as she processes the events surrounding her. We get a glimpse into the ordinary life of someone who turned out to be such an extraordinary icon in American history. We get a personal account of a story that is usually told in such an impersonal manner.

Sometimes in a memoir, the author will ramble on about day-to-day events that seem so inconsequential. And for most people, they are. They're boring and have no relevance to anything. But in this book, the mundane is important, because it just builds up the tension of the whole story. Not once did I think that LaNier was rambling. Nor would I criticize her for being self-promoting as many memoir authors in her position are. Instead, I am glad to have gotten a glimpse into an event that otherwise seems so distant.

*Note: I'm sure most people (should) recognize the above picture from the Little Rock Crisis. But is it just me or do these high school students look about 45-years-old?


Colin said...

She does look old, but the women behind her are probably parents from the high school. They were likely more vitriolic than the white students during integration.

Kari said...

I knew someone was going to say that, and leave it to you.

Jenny said...

I haven't heard of this but it sounds very interesting. I'm going to write this one down so I remember it and look for it later.

Salvatore said...

I know that this is purely a sales (and therefore a heartless) question but I wonder why it took the author so long to discuss this in a 'public' forum like a book.

Kari said...

Sal - She brings up your point in the book. Stuff about not wanting to linger in the past and getting over it rather than facing it again. Her narrative goes up through Obama's Inauguration, though, so I'm gonna bet that had something to do with her decision to tell the story.

Colin said...