By: Denise Nicholas
First and foremost, Freshwater Road is a book about race.
It takes place during the real-life Freedom Summer that took place in 1964, during which volunteers went to towns all across the state of Mississippi to register blacks to vote. This was the dead of the Civil Rights Movement, and some of you might know of the murder of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, three Freedom Summer volunteers who were killed by the KKK for their role in the campaign.
The main character of Freshwater Road, Celeste Tyree, is one such volunteer.
So this novel has very heavy subject matter.
It’s simultaneously a coming-of-age story and a collective discourse. Celeste is a very individualized character, truly unique in her biography and personality, but Celeste stands for many more volunteers with likeminded notions about making a small, but extremely significant, dent in white supremacy.
While this book is an excellent book, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed it if it weren’t for it’s glimpse into the lives of Civil Rights activists, the true struggles they faced, and the brutality of the opposition.
It’s a very physical book. Although I was reading this during late October, complete with cutting fall breezes and morning frosts, I was caught up in the heat of a Mississippi summer. If Nicholas does nothing else right, she really makes you feel the sweat constantly rolling down Celeste’s face. She also doesn’t shy away from the reality of poverty and what it means to live in a house with no indoor plumbing. It’s all there.
But to me, the stuff outside of the Civil Rights narrative, the stuff about Celeste’s love life and family life and personal growth, that stuff wasn’t gripping. It didn’t pull me in. I found myself skimming those pages, waiting to get back to the preparation for the day that blacks gained the vote in the fictional town of Pineyville, MS.
So I wouldn’t say that this is a novel to pick up and read for the heck of it.
But this is a great way to take a textbook chapter on Civil Rights and make it real. It’s a fabulous novel if you want to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement, about young people getting involved, about how a normal person can have the courage to stand in the face of hatred and violence.
If you enjoyed Freshwater Road, try one of these:
Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Salt by Earl Lovelace
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Meridian by Alice Walker
Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina
Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.