When I taught Social Studies to 8th grade, my students read a brief article about the exoneration of George Stinney Jr., who was 14 in 1944 when he was executed by the state of South Carolina. My then-14-year-old students took it hard. This was a boy their age who was executed for two murders he didn't commit.
It set the stage for a discussion about Black participation in World War II, and why Blacks and other people of color would sign up to fight for a country that not only failed to protect them, but also promulgated a system of inequality, even during war-time. The answer my students came up with was: hope. Hope for change.
And that's how this book ends, on a hopeful note at Christmas, even though there's a ton of heartbreak to get there.
To listen to a short interview / read a transcript of a family member of George Stinney remember him, and a family member of one of the girls killed, visit:
The book is set in Alcolu, South Carolina, a real town, and written from three points of view: 12-year-olds Ella, Henry, and Myrna. Ella dreams of going North, to live with her mom, who performs in Boston as a jazz singer, and wonders who her father might be. She's lighter skinned and considered by many to be prettier than Myrna, whose mother died in childbirth and never told anyone who Myrna's father was. Henry has the soul of an artist and is friends with both girls.
Readers are introduced to George at a picnic, where he's tenderly sweet on Myrna. Your readers may not pick up on his identity right away. I know I didn't.
Then, amidst the kids' hopes and dreams, two young white girls, ages 11 and 7, go missing and are later found dead.
It should be an unfortunate tragedy that has no impact on their lives, but George has the misfortune to encounter the searchers and he tells them where he last saw the girls and what direction they were headed. And that is enough to have him arrested, tried and executed.
The friends must deal with separation, because Ella gets her wish to go to Boston, although all doesn't quite work out the way she hoped, including figuring out her father's identity. And there's a lot of anxiety and fear surrounding George's sham trial and pending execution. The friends find courage in Alcolu's darkest hour, although the author deliberately doesn't mention if George ever knows of what they do. Myrna's heartbreak is especially gut-wrenching.
This is an awesome read. Pull up a box of tissues. I cried a ton with this story!