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On New Year’s Day my friend Ginny sent me this from The New York Times, about visiting horses at midnight on New Year’s Eve. For both of us, it struck a deep chord, especially the line “I always wonder what it would be like to belong to a species — just for a while — that isn’t so busy indexing its life, that lives wholly within the single long strand of its being.”

That is both beautiful and true. It gives me another thread in understanding why I am so contented when I’m with horses. I am still going out to volunteer at the barn where my beloved part-Arab, Penrod (the one captioned ‘Penny’ on the link above), spent his last few years. I brush horses, especially Penrod’s girlfriend Hayroll, who the program director describes as “emotive.” She closes her eyes in bliss when you brush her and leans her head into your hand for scratchings. Occasionally I tack them up and lead one around the ring with a little child on its back.
And since Penrod died on Oct. 13, twice they’ve let me ride–each time a big, round-bellied pony, one named Fritz and the other Annelise. Nothing makes me quite as calm and comfortable in my skin as riding. And though I sometimes tear up about Penrod, when I’m out at the barn with the horses, I don’t actively miss him. And maybe in that I’m becoming more like the animals.
 
I was still awake at midnight this New Year’s Eve. I opened the windows and let 2008 in, looked at the Big Dipper from one window and Orion from the other, saw a few fireworks, and like the human I am, wished that this will be a wonderful year.
 
My three best friends and I have decided that the watch words for 2008 are Focus, Slower, and Deeper–perfect words for a writer at the stage I find myself.  Deeper, slower, more focused writing is within my grasp if I have the courage to reach for it. So maybe the fourth word should be courage.

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I have been hard at work on a complete revision of my novel Reply All. It started when I got a thoughtful and constructive rejection from a really great agent whose main issue was that he didn’t know where the book would go on a bookstore’s shelves. He also had some problems with the basic structure of the novel, which is a cross-generational story about how a mother’s adolescent freakout led to the child’s problems and adventures and self-realizations.

The revelation I had, while driving my two dogs up to Little Bennett Regional park here in Maryland, was that the other main character should be female rather than male. When I realized this, I actually felt my heart twist in my chest and I teared up. It was the exact right thing. Not only was it the way out of the box the agent had pointed out–the problem of audience. It was the exact right thing for the novel itself.

The main character is a Nashville session musician, a dobro player. How much hotter is a chick dobro player? The main character after learning the mother’s secrets, goes in search of the three men who could be the father. How much more nuanced is that quest when it’s a girl rather than a guy? As my friend Susan put it, there’s the “bat squeak” of sexuality between a father and daughter. A road trip for a girl even now is more edgy than for a guy. Hanging in bars is edgier for a chick. Talking football is cooler for a girl. Everything is better, including releasing something in me to probe mother-daughter relationships, father-daughter relationships. And the sibling dynamic is much more interesting now that it’s three sisters rather than two sisters and a brother.

AND the change puts the novel firmly in the category of women’s fiction with a whiff of chick lit. Young women will read about their mothers’ lovers. Older women will read about their daughters’ search for themselves. Women will read family sagas. Guys — not so much.

Again, to quote Susan, it’s the beneficial influence of form following function rather than entrapment. In other words, changing the novel to appeal to its true audience is not a sell-out; it’s taking the story to a higher level.

All this said, don’t think I’ve abandoned Robert for Vivi without a pang. I always thought Faulkner was talking about bits of writing you like very very much when he said writers must be strong enough to “slay their darlings.” I never thought of actually killing off your darling characters. I’ve slain characters before without much of a pang, but Robert is different. I love him. And he now goes into a strange half-life, literary limbo, because he’ll always BE there. He just doesn’t go on with this novel. It’s very sad.

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I wanted to share one thing from the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles I attended earlier this month. Walter Dean Myers was the keynote speaker the first day. His voice is like James Earl Jones’s and he has a marvelous, easy, natural delivery, and spoke about what distinguishes good writing from the other kind. He read a sentence from a novel he’d once critiqued: “I stormed into the bedroom, paced the hardwood floor and then collapsed on the bed.” As he said, this sentence gives the reader some information but it’s not good enough.

He said a writer should always be looking for “the detail that explodes the moment.”

This exploded my mind. I’ve been thinking of it ever since. Just yesterday I was thinking of details that could have exploded the sentence above. Did the door crack when she slammed it, did it bounce open again, did the door handle fall off? Did she kick a stuffed animal across the hardwood floor? Were the sheets on the bed rumpled and dirty? Or was the bed covered with a white duvet and 600-thread-count sheets? Did someone’s voice roar up from downstairs after her? Or is she a he? Is there a Ruger under the bed? A computer on the desk clicking through possible passwords to hack the bank downtown?

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2007 Tour of the Southland by the numbers:

Miles traveled: 4000+
States visited: Seven
Colleges toured/visited: Four
Scorpions sighted: Zero
Days on the road: 11
Days it rained: Seven
Hotels: Four

DAY ONE: June 27-DC-Bristol, TN
DAY TWO: June 28-Bristol, TN-Nashville, TN (visited UT) dinner Bosco’s with Jeff and Miramichee girls Kellye & Betsy.
DAY THREE: June 29, Breakfast at Noshville with old friend, Emily, Nashville-Memphis, TN, dinner at Cafe Ole with many delightful Miramichee girls and assorted others of all ages and sexes.
DAY FOUR: Memphis, reading at National Civil Rights Museum, lunch at the Rendezvous, H.S. reunion in evening with fabulous-looking former classmates.
DAY FIVE: Memphis to New Orleans, tour of French Quarter

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DAY SIX: Tour of Tulane and the Garden District, drive to my brother’s ranchette near Wimberley, Texas.
DAY SEVEN: Tour of San Marcos and the Aquarena, a strange nature center that used to be a water amusement park featuring mermaids and Ralph the Swimming Pig. I remember this from childhood. We took the glass-bottomed boat to see the springs and then the boardwalk over a swamp and saw herons and scissortail flycatchers.
DAY EIGHT: Toured San Antonio, childhood home, and River Walk. Watched fireworks from my brother’s deck

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DAY NINE: Toured Austin, University of Texas. Headed out after tour returned and made it to Texarkana by 11 p.m.
DAY TEN: Texarkana to Nashville.
DAY ELEVEN: Nashville to D.C.

New Orleans

We went to New Orleans on the 2007 Tour of the Southland. The first time I had been back since Katrina. I had been there for a week in June 2001 staying at the Ritz Carlton for a convention where I was on the staff.
Physically where we were this year (the French Quarter and the Garden District) we saw little obvious damage. The Super Dome is rebuilt of course. We saw lots of construction and a couple of burned houses in the Garden District, near Carrollton Ave. Otherwise it was as beautiful and exotic as it has ever been, hinting of so much. But but but … the energy has been sucked out. The streets are not as crowded.

dscn0644.jpgA sign at Cafe du Monde on Jackson Square says, “Please seat yourself.” The last two times I was in New Orleans the lines were blocks long to get a seat. Bourbon Street had people, we saw a crew of tap-dancing kids leaving, there were eccentrics and freaks, but not so many, not so flamboyant. The old black man with a white beard singing “Sitting on a Dock of the Bay” on Jackson Square was really good, but he didn’t have much money in his guitar case.

Texas

I was born in Texas, in San Antonio. We moved to Memphis when I was six. This trip we went back to San Antonio, saw the house where we lived and went downtown to the Alamo and the River Walk. I thought I would remember it, have that emotional kick of memory. Nothing. We saw Joske’s, the department store whose jingle I remember perfectly. Nothing. It was like I had never seen it before. Same with the Alamo. I only remembered it as if I’d seen it in pictures.

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We went through the Villetta, the old city where my brother tells me I always begged to go to the old glassblowers shop. ??? Really? The glassblowers shop just closed last year. It had opened a few years after I was born. Strange, strange. The River Walk was lovely though.
And in Austin, I couldn’t get a sense of the city at all either. The coolness doesn’t hang in the air. I think I missed trees. I’ve lived so long in the East that the absence of big trees is oppressive.
But the part of the University of Texas we saw was wonderful. We went to see the dormitory our mother lived in when she was at Texas for one year in the 1930s. Littlefield Hall. Totally enchanting

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I just finished Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices by Jodi Picoult. Miss Snark praised her, I’ve seen her name everywhere, she writes both young-adult and adult fiction, so I grabbed this one. It was good, interesting for me from a craft sense, but somehow unsatisfying. Is this women’s fiction? I think so, or some region on the border of women’s and literary fiction. It’s the account of a marriage breakup and reassemblage told from five different first-person viewpoints with the chronology all shuffled up. So technically that was interesting but I had a strong sense that the choice was not inevitable. That it was less “it has to be this way” than “let’s try this.” And the other thing I found disappointing in such an acclaimed writer is that the voices of the five different narrators all sounded curiously the same. There were a few overtones of individuality, but the way they looked at the world, their literary voice, was at foundation the same. So, interesting yet unsatisfying. I didn’t learn anything here except maybe what to watch out for in my own work.

I know, hideous hubris for me to be dissing a well-loved and recognized novelist while I–a self-pubbed author–am still languishing  in the slush, but I pound my chest and declare it’s my right to be a critic if I want. (blows raspberry)

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I am finishing up the sixth draft of my new novel, Reply All. It’s hard, hard going. I am sending it to new brand-new readers, but at the same time not giving my three beloved crit partners any break. I’m at the point where sometimes I read it and I think, “Wow, this is so good. How could I have written it,” and then half an hour later, I read it again, and think, “God, does this suck.” I am pretty pleased with the first 50 pages, I have to say.
And now what I am doing a lot of is catching those bits that come out of the ether while I’m driving, or cooking, or sitting in the backyard watching the dogs romp. Grabbing them and putting them where they belong. These are the best bits, the true ones, the ones that aren’t darlings to slay, but actually right and proper. Those doomed darlings are always the ones I write in cold blood rather than hear while I’m not trying. Everyone I manage to wrestle out of the air and onto the page makes it a better novel.
And I have worked harder and longer (again with lots of help from writing partners) on the query than I have ever before worked on one, even sending it through the Agent X hook contest. I am truly hoping this–my eighth completed novel–will be the one to break through and be first agented (if I get a new agent, it will be my third) and then published.
As you all know, this writing life is long and hard, and frustrating, and discouraging. But it’s also intoxicating on rare occasions. But whether I’m high or low, I have to write. Can’t not. It saves my soul.
So wish me luck. And I wish every writer reading this boatloads of luck as well. We need it. But it better find us working.

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How important is the first line of a novel, especially an unsold novel that’s going out to agents in a few weeks?

Here are the first lines of some of the books I’ve read this year:

Esther Crummey foresaw the accident as it unfolded.” The Fugitive Wife by Peter C. Brown

“FOR more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.” Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman

“Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things,” The Ice Queen, Alice Hoffman.

“THE WEEK BEFORE I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party.” Looking for Alaska, John Greene

“I write this sitting in the sink.” I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

“Mom, you’ve been fighting again.” Blood and Chocolate, Annette Curtis Klause

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Gee, wonder who?

When I started revising my WIP this past weekend, I was shocked by how bad my first paragraph sucked. My limping first line is, “Robert Reilly tried to empty his mind.” I say this with my face literally burning with embarrassment. Pu-leeze. It’s in the same dank category as, “Susie swam up out of a deep sleep.” Talk about wanting to make your reader put the book down to catch some zzzs.

And I’ve got so much to work with. Robert’s a Nashville session player, and is doing a sound check on his dobro. A dobro is a variety of resonating, “steel” or “slide” guitar used by bluegrass and blues guitarists. A quick morning of research and I found the following cool facts. Slides made of wine bottles make the sound “weepier” and richer. Metal slides give a “sharper” tone. “Bent” or “blue” notes are made by pulling the slide up 1/4 or 1/2 above or below the fret and then you “bend and vibrate” the string with the slide to get the vibrato “that makes slide guitar so haunting.” The old black blues men used knives for slides and Blind Willie Johnson is said to have used a straight razor. And there’s debate about whether you can play steel guitar with “naked fingers.” Traditional bluegrass uses a squareneck steel guitar played with three picks on the right hand (thumb, index, middle) and the slide in the right, on the pinkie, ring or middle finger.  Blues musicians more often use a bottleneck version, which can be played in a traditional position. Squareneck dobros are played either in the lap or hanging horizontally from the neck. Steel resonating guitars, like dobros, were invented for volume—to be “the loudest, shiniest, funkiest.” There’s a lot there to work with. All the way through the novel as Robert moves from being controlled, cautious and wary to being more courageous, exuberant and risk tolerant.

So, first lines suggestions anyone? Tales of your own first line horrors?

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Still reading The Golden Bough, Chapter 21, Tabooed Things, including hair and the head. 

I think this is interesting given that this taboo continues in some forms today. When I was a girl, I had to wear something on my head to go to church (Episcopal), either a hat or at least a little scrap of lace. Jewish men must wear yarmulkes, Sikhs must not cut their hair and must wear turbans, Muslim women must cover their heads. The reason “rude savages” are all squirrelly about anyone touching their heads or cutting their hair relates to the belief in sympathetic magic, Frazer says. Primitive societies believed that malevolent sorcerers could take pieces from one’s body–hair, nail clippings, even spit–and use that for enchantments. And despite all evidence to the contrary, a “savage” who believes his hair has been burned by an enemy may waste and die, Frazer says–solid proof of the power of mind over matter, belief over reason.

One of the most troubling aspects of our particular time in history is the power of these lingering primitive religious beliefs, wrapped up in thousands of years of semi-rational thought and before that millions of years of irrationality.

Reading The Golden Bough has reaffirmed my disbelief, I must say. I do believe it matters that we live a good life, but hope of reward or fear of punishment in an afterlife has nothing to do with this conviction. I don’t have any idea what happens after we die, and it seems that most religions are pretty much waving our arms around trying to answer that great mystery in a way that keeps fear at bay.
Covering the head before God or wearing a scarf to avoid arousing men’s lust seems senseless to me. After reading Orhan Panuk’s Snow, I can get with headscarfs as a political statement. I can even get with them as a fashion statement. When I was in my late 20s, I traveled to Western Iran, near Tabriz, and the girls there (this was the late 1970s before the Shah was deposed) had these flirty scarfs and wore jeans and platform shoes. I wanted a scarf like that in the worst way.

But if there is a power that binds the universe together, I can’t think it would care that our heads are open to the sun or that the wind blows through our hair.

However, The Golden Bough is rich material for writer, especially for fantasy or historical fiction. 

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I got this e-mail from a little old lady with a quavery voice who bought a copy of Peace for her 14-year-old niece at a book-signing. I think I should use it as promotional copy. What self-respecting young-adult wouldn’t want to read it after this?

“I had no idea that when you said your book was about ‘bullying at a girls’ camp’ it would be about sociopathic psychosis, murder, suicide, major clinical depression, and unprotected teen sex. I’m glad I previewed it. No way would I give it to my niece. Life is rough enough. “

Based on this fabulous list of subject matter (right up there with Prinz Award Winner Looking for Alaska), here’s a reworking for back-cover copy by my friend Ginny:

“Life is rough enough. But it gets even rougher when a group of teenage girls run wild at a secluded summer camp in the Deep South. “HOT” doesn’t just describe the weather. Canoeing? Handicrafts? Sing-a-longs? Don’t go looking for any of that in Peace I Ask of Thee. Try murder, suicide and unprotected teen sex. Parents, don’t let your daughters get their hands on this one!”

Ginny also offered to write new back-cover copy for Mr. Touchdown. Says she will use the word “miscegenation, whether it’s relevant or not.”

Speaking of Looking for Alaska, I just read the School Library Journal’s review on Amazon. Here’s a line: “The language and sexual situations are aptly and realistically drawn, but sophisticated in nature. ” This is so mild. My little old lady would be horrified to know that graphic oral sex is merely “sophisticated.”

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Here’s the first chapter of my upper-middlegrade novel, Mr. Touchdown, about the desegregation of a Southern high school in 1965. Hope you enjoy it!

C H A P T E R 1

NOT HEROES

A 15-year-old gray Ford hummed down Highway 61 heading southout of
Memphis, Tennessee. The Mississippi River rolled by a fewmiles to the west. If the two Negro men in their dark suits and hatshad kept driving the bullet-nosed 1950 Ford a few miles farthersouth, they would have dropped down from the bluffs around Memphison to the flat Mississippi Delta that stretched dead flat for hundredsof miles, a rich land of cotton and soybeans. Well, rich in someways. The soil was rich, a few white folks were rich, but most peoplewere poor in the Delta.But the two men turned left off of Highway 61 onto ChickalissaRoad, a two-lane paved road that cut between wide fields. Far off inthe shimmering June heat they caught glimpses of bent figures choppingcotton.

A mile or so down the road, the old Ford turned right ata small red brick church onto a narrow dirt street.In the middle of that street, Eddie Russell and his best friend, VernellCunningham, were throwing a football back and forth. Schoolhad been out just long enough for them to start to get bored. Theywatched the unfamiliar car ease off the paved road, raising a cloud ofyellow dust. The dirt street was barely wide enough for the car. Thetwo men inside stretched their necks looking for house numbers thatweren’t there. The neighborhood was better than a lot of Negroneighborhoods; most of the houses were painted, but they didn’t havenumbers. Everybody knew where everybody else lived.Eddie watched the car coming toward them, then raised his eyebrowat Vernell, who shook his head. He didn’t know them either.The bullet-nosed car inched closer to where they stood, between Vernell’shouse and Eddie’s Aunt Hattie’s house.Eddie threw the football hard into Vernell’s chest. Vernell caughtit and fired it onto his porch, making his sister and her friends in theporch swing shriek.The car stopped, nearly touching Eddie’s knees. He moved aroundto the driver’s side, while Vernell eased over to the passenger’s window.“Where you goin’?” Eddie asked, overly polite.“We are looking for the residence of Reverend Henry Russell,” thedriver answered, looking hard at Eddie like he knew Eddie was beinga smart-ass. The man sounded like a stuck-up Northern Negro.Eddie stepped back and waved a hand, allowing them to pass.“Three doors down on the right. Green house past the white house.”The car rolled forward and stopped three doors down. From theporch of Aunt Hattie’s house, Eddie’s sister, Lakeesha, commonlyknown as “Mouse,” got up. She’d been curled up in a wicker chairreading, as usual. Mouse never hung out with the other girls. She waswrapped up in books, zipping away down her hole whenever anyonegot too close. She annoyed Eddie. He wished she would act more likeeverybody else, hang out, laugh with the other girls. Mouse was justdifferent, but she was his sister, so he had to defend her.Lakeesha leaned over the porch rail and looked anxiously down thestreet at the Ford. Aunt Hattie, heavy in her porch rocker, gruntedand got to her feet, too.The men got out, walked to the door and knocked. The ReverendHenry Russell opened the door, shook both men’s hands, and beckonedthe visitors inside with a tight gesture. For a flicker of a second,Not Heroes 3Vernell went into his imitation of Reverend Russell’s stiff, robot-likemovements.

Eddie bit back his laughter, not willing to laugh at hisown father.“Who is that?” Eddie called up to his aunt. She was only a few feetaway. None of the houses had any front yards to speak of, just a bit ofbeaten grass and dirt.Aunt Hattie made a disgusted snorting sound. “I don’t know whyHenry thinks he’s got to do this,” she said and went inside, slammingthe screen door behind her.Eddie and Vernell looked at each other, puzzled. Vernell’s sister,Etta Lee, threw the football back to Eddie, an awkward dead-duckthrow that started somewhere down around her knees. Eddie caughtit and flipped the football, spinning, into the air.Eddie threw to Vernell, watching the cluster of girls on Vernell’sporch out of the corner of his eye, heard their light, high laughter.Vernell caught the ball, staggered back a few steps, exaggerating hisstumbling, gratified by the girls’ giggles.“Goofball,” Eddie said. Then they fell into a comfortable rhythm,a dance they’d danced for years. The girls went inside and for a while,the familiar thunk, thunk of the boys passing the football back andforth was the only human sound in the hot afternoon. A mockingbirdsang loudly from the tangled hedges at the edge of the cotton field.The front door of Eddie’s house opened, and Reverend Russell’scrisp voice called, “Son, come inside for a moment.”Eddie fired the ball one last time into Vernell’s outstretched arms.Vernell twirled and ran, darting this way and that down the street,evading imaginary pursuit.Eddie walked down to his house and followed his father into theliving room. The men had removed their hats. The shorter,darker-skinned man’s round glasses caught the light as he lookedtoward the door.Eddie heard the back door open, then close, and figured Mousehad gone into her room the back way, down her safe hole.

After the bright June sun outside, the living room was dark, the airstill and heavy on Eddie’s skin. Empty coffee cups sat on the tableamong the crumbs of Mama’s lemon cake. The tall man shut thebrown leather briefcase and snapped it closed.Eddie saw the two men recognize him from the encounter outsideand exchange quick glances.“Mel Collier from the NAACP,” his father said, waving a hand atthe tall man.NAACP? Eddie thought. What are they doing here?“Shelby Reed, from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,”Reverend Russell continued, indicating the shorter, darkerman. “My son, Eddie Russell.”Eddie shook hands formally with the two men.“Eddie.” His father looked down at the floor, his hands clasped asif he was praying. Eddie heard his mother moving around in thekitchen behind the living room.

“Eddie,” Reverend Russell started again. “I’m going to ask you todo something very difficult. We want you to transfer to Forrest HighSchool this fall.”Eddie saw sparks, like he’d been hit hard on the football field andlost consciousness for a few seconds. He sat down on the couch.The two men studied Eddie as carefully as a couple of coaches,looking for signs of weakness. Reverend Russell lifted his glasses towipe his face with his handkerchief. Eddie looked at his father in disbelief,but Reverend Russell looked away.“What are you talking about?” Eddie asked the two strangers.Mr. Collier held up a long sheet of paper, covered with typing.“This,” he said, looking Eddie in the eye, daring him to say somethingsmart, “is a desegregation order.”“You’ve been handpicked, Eddie,” Mr. Reed said. “You’re a goodstudent, and you’ve demonstrated good self-control.”“And you’re an athlete,” Mr. Collier said. “That’s very important.”“What’s that got to do with it?”Not Heroes 5“It gives you a place, a wedge to achieve acceptance in an all-whiteschool,” said his father.Eddie opened his mouth, but Mr. Reed cut him off.“We’re not sure you can do this, Eddie. Your father has assured usyou can, but if you go to that school, you must be like Gandhi. Doyou know who Gandhi was?”Eddie shrugged, half nodding. He knew who Gandhi was, but Mr.

Reed rolled right on, not really looking at him.“Gandhi changed the world by refusing to accept injustice, but hedid it because he was absolutely committed to nonviolence.” Mr.Reed’s dark eyes bored into Eddie’s.Yeah, right, Eddie thought. That might have worked in
India orwherever, but here you’d get your head kicked in.“That’s harder than it sounds,” Mr. Reed said. The muscles of hisjaw rippled. “It takes a great deal of courage to take blows from whitemen and not fight back. More courage than it takes to hit themback.”“Eddie, you are a football player, a basketball player,” Mr. Colliersaid. “Those are violent, competitive sports. To be a star athlete youhave to have a world of fight in you. Can you control that off thefield?”Eddie didn’t answer.“Can you do that, Eddie?” his father asked.About a year before, in 1964, Reverend Russell had taken a busloadof church members to the March on
Washington. Eddie hadgone with him. Before they went, all of them had been taught how toendure taunts and jeers without reacting, how and when to sit downwhen the police told them to move, how to curl up and cover theirheads with their hands if they were beaten.But nothing like that had happened. They had been jammed inamong thousands and thousands of other black folks far back in thecrowd that day. The feeling of being pressed into that multitude ofpeople had stayed with Eddie. He’d felt the anger in the crowd. Otherpeople from the church had talked later about feeling hope rising up

in them that day, but Eddie had only felt like somebody was chokinghim.“Why didn’t you tell me?” Eddie asked.His father’s eyes gleamed behind the glasses. He ignored Eddie’squestion, as Eddie had avoided his.“Son, now is the time to find the strength to endure, to triumph.Nothing is more powerful than a righteous idea,” he said.Eddie looked down at his ragged Converse high-tops. Then he gotup to face the men. He refused to sit like a child in a corner being lecturedby adults.You’re not asking me to do this, are you? You’re telling me, hethought, looking at his father’s still face. For a horrible second hethought he might cry over the unfairness of it. His junior year, starrunning back, all his friends, everything familiar, gone in an instant.He would be nothing at Forrest. Less than nothing—despised, hated.All because of Dr. King’s damned dream.

The men watched him apprehensively. He tried to say, “No.” Hetried to object, to argue, to plead, but one look into his father’s eyes,and he knew it was useless. The train had already left the station.“What’s going to happen?” he asked.Mr. Reed and Mr. Collier looked at each other. Eddie caught aflicker of relief in their eyes.“You can’t expect even one act of kindness,” said Mr. Reed, “notone. If you don’t expect any kindness, it won’t bother you so muchwhen you don’t get it.”

“You must keep your head down, don’t make trouble, don’t bumpinto people, keep your distance and don’t expect to make friends,”Mr. Collier said.“And you must never so much as look a white girl in the face,” Mr.Reed said. “That will get you hurt faster than anything you can do.They don’t exist. Remember that. They are invisible to you, as youwill be invisible to them.”

They sounded like they had made this speech before. Eddie startedto tune them out.Not Heroes 7His father held up his hand, stopping the two younger men intheir tracks.“You must look into the soul of your enemies and find in themsomething to love,” Reverend Russell said, his eyes cold.Eddie looked from one man to another. How could his father havebroken it to him like this, in front of strangers, giving him no choice,no say in it at all? He might actually have chosen to go fight for Dr.King’s dream if he’d been brought into the decision, but his fatherhadn’t trusted him. He’d set him up, trapped him.“Can I play football?” he asked.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶Eddie sat on the couch. His heart pounded, and his thighs quivered.He wished he could get away. His mother had come in and nowsat beside him, patting his arm. Eddie looked in her face and saw thatshe too had submitted to the inevitability of his father’s decision. Butthe quick flash of understanding in her eyes comforted him.“Esther, we’d better get Lakeesha.”With a sigh that caught in her throat, his mother got up and wentinto the kitchen.“Lakeesha?” Eddie asked in amazement. “You’re not going to—”

His father held up a hand to stop him from speaking. Eddielooked at the floor, seething. The door to the porch opened, and heheard a rattle as his mother pulled aside the curtain that separatedLakeesha’s bedroom from the rest of the porch.“Keesha, baby? Your father wants to see you,” Eddie heard her say.Lakeesha stumbled into the living room, looking lost and sleepy,the way she always did when they pulled her out of her books. Whenshe saw the two strange men and Eddie, she stopped, stood upstraight, the fog vanishing from her eyes. Her whole body tensed.Eddie’s fists clenched. There was no hole for Lakeesha to disappearinto.“Lakeesha, daughter,” Reverend Russell began and then stoppedspeaking.Mr. Collier looked at him and quickly started speaking. “Lakeesha,this is Shelby Reed from SNCC.” He pronounced it the way they alldid, snick, like a lock closing. “And I am Mel Collier from theNAACP. We have obtained a court order to desegregate Forrest HighSchool this fall. You and Eddie, and two other girls, Lethe Jeffersonand Rochelle Perry, have been chosen to desegregate the school.”Lakeesha’s eyes darted from one man to another.Say, no. Say, NO! Eddie thought at her.“What’s ‘snick’?” she asked in a small voice.Eddie wanted to scream with frustration. Lakeesha hadn’t even forone second thought about saying, “No,” to their father. At least hehad considered it—for a second.“The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,” Mr. Reedsaid. Eddie hated his condescending smile, like he felt sorry for anyonewho didn’t know what SNCC was. Lakeesha leaned back fromthe two men. She shot a quick glance at Eddie, then stared down ather feet.“What will they do to us?” she asked.Eddie swallowed and closed his eyes, images from television flickeringacross his memory. Screaming whites, their faces twisted, as

frightened children walked down the sidewalk to school guarded bywhite men holding guns.The adults were all silent, too. Everyone in the room held theirbreath.Then Mr. Collier stepped toward Lakeesha, bending down to getto her eye level. He took her hand.“Lakeesha, this is not
Little Rock. We’ve had ten long years offoot-dragging since then, but I truly believe there will be no troublelike that.”“

Selma broke the back of white resistance.” Mr. Reed’s voicegrated on Eddie’s ears. He talked too loud, too clipped, like he wasNot Heroes 9reading a proclamation. “We’ll have a Voting Rights Act before theend of the summer. We’re winning.”Mr. Collier looked at Mr. Reed with a frown. Eddie thought hewas trying to tone Mr. Reed down, warn him to go slow.“We will work with all of you for the rest of the summer on this—what to expect, how to behave,” Mr. Collier said, his voice soft andgentle, but Eddie didn’t trust him either. “You four and the Negrostudents who will be desegregating other white schools this fall—youwill be ready.”Mr. Reed handed Lakeesha a page from a newspaper.“This is Diane Nelson. I was with her at Fisk
University when westarted the lunch counter sit-ins in
Nashville. She’s gone to jail overand over again. Diane Nelson is a hero, Lakeesha. You will be a herotoo.”The faded newspaper clipping shook in Lakeesha’s hand.So! This Mr. Reed had been in the sit-in movement, Eddiethought. That had led to the Freedom Rides, to riots, to people beingbeaten and killed, to little girls about Lakeesha’s age being blown upat church, and finally to him and his little sister being “chosen” todesegregate Forrest High.Eddie got up and crossed the room to his sister, looked down atthe picture in her hand. Diane Nelson, this hero, a beautifullight-skinned, light-eyed Negro woman, stared defiantly at the camera,holding a baby in her arms.Eddie put his arm around Lakeesha’s shoulders, felt her wholebody shivering. His mother’s eyes were closed. She was praying, heknew.Eddie turned and glared at the older men, at his father.“You all want us to go to an all-white school, we’ll go,” he said.“But don’t expect us to be heroes.”

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