Four Spirits is dedicated to the four little girls who were killed in a church bombing on September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley's memories are a constant sorrow and motivation for all of the characters in this novel by the beautiful writer Sena Jeter Naslund, who grew up in Birmingham and promised herself, at the time, that she would one day write about the scary and sad events that engulfed Birmingham during the 1960s.
We meet a variety of people from Birmingham's black community up close, as well as a few white students, a Klan member and his abused spouse, and a young man from New York who has come to the South to help people register to vote. Naslund is a painterly writer; she has the ability to make her audience feel for her characters and mourn or celebrate their fates.
Since I don't remember the events of 1963-65, this book was a bit of an education for me. For one thing, I didn't realize just how many people in the South were actually gleeful about the news of President Kennedy's assassination. It was shocking for me to read that there were people in Birmingham that were not ashamed of being glad that someone was dead--and not just in private, but openly.
Everything that went on--The KKK's violent attacks that were ignored by police, the segregation, the random bombings, the various tactics of keeping black people from voting, and the poor employment choices for minorities all came together to create hell on earth. This city earned the nickname Bombingham.
Part of this novel involves a night school for people who need to study for their GED test, and it welcomes everyone, even though all the students are black. However, one day, the two main white characters, Stella and Cat, have decided to help out as teachers there. They have both just graduated from college, and have been brought up in homes where bigotry did not exist. Along the way, Stella and Cat face their own challenges; Stella has some lack of freedom that came with being a young woman (I didn't know a single woman couldn't get birth control pills without telling your doctor when the wedding was), and Cat is physically handicapped in a world when it was okay not to hire someone for that reason. The other teachers at the school are black, and thus they are--integrated. Gloria, Christine, Arcola, Stella, and Cat. It's a very small night school, they aren't even funded, yet they face harassment and bomb threats. It's hard to imagine the level of hatred, and why a few people couldn't even congregate in a hot room on a summer night without any books. And even if every one of them were to get his GED, it's not like good jobs would suddenly be open to them. The spirit and motivation behind teaching and learning in this kind of environment was incredible.
Part of the motivation is the hope that one's children will live in a better world. And of course one's parents are everything, they set the example in both good and bad ways. Christine desperately wanted her children to better themselves, to be kind to everyone, to take care of themselves, and to be respected in the community. The flip side was Ryder, the Klansman, the uneducated bigot and wife-abuser. The Klan was depicted as a familial thing--how sad, to be brought up in the tradition of dressing like a white cone head and maiming and killing innocent people.
The theme of the book is hope. In the end, we hope that the people who survived these days can look back and say that everything they did was worth it, that the friends and family they lost did not die in vain.
I decided to pick up this book because of its author; Sena Jeter Naslund wrote Ahab's Wife, a book I consider to be one of my favorites of all time. And, for those who read that earlier novel, there is a nod to it, around page 142, where we learn that Gloria is a great-great granddaughter of a certain escaped slave named Susan. This novel is another example of Naslund's talent, and I would recommend it to anyone.