In the summer of 1946, in Davis, a small town in the deep South of the United States, 14 year old Ansel Anderson lives with his mother, Maureen and his father, Bert. Bert runs Anderson's General Store which he took over from his father at age 18 and which he expects Ansel to take on after him.
Unfortunately, Davis is a town set in it's pre-Civil War ways. Niggers don't speak until spoken to, move off the sidewalk when a white person approaches and don't even think about being equal to a white man. The town was founded by the Davis family who claim a large influence over it. Zeph Davis (known as Cap'n Davis) owns the largest cotton plantation in this part of the state and every building in Davis, including Bert Anderson's store. He has Negroes "working" for him but they are always in debt to him.
Ansel is friends with Willie, a black boy his own age, whom Bert has hired to help at the store, on the recommendation of Esther Davis. Willie's father, Big Willie was unable to work after his World War II service and now does odd jobs at the church. Bert doesn't like the fact that his son likes the "nigger boy", as he refers to Willie.
It was all right to have a nigger as a friend when you were little, but at fourteen it was time for Ansel to understand what it meant to be white, and past time for Willie to understand what it meant to be a nigger.
Ansel is attracted to Mary Susan, the daughter of Reverend Luther Dennis, the town's preacher. When he sees her with Zeph Davis III, the 16 year old son of Cap'n Davis, he is both afraid for her and angry at her. He knows what Zeph is and the terrible things he does to the black girls. What Ansel doesn't know is that Mary Susan likes Ansel and that she only agreed to go with Zeph out of boredom. When Mary Susan refuses Zeph's advances we later see his disturbing and sadistic side.
Several days later, as Bert and Ansel are closing up the store, Big Willie comes running to them telling them that something terrible has happened in the church. When they discover a murder has taken place in the church, and that a white man is responsible, Big Willie tells Bert, "You'll tell the white folks it wasn't me. Won't you, Mistah Bert?" He trusts Bert to do the right thing because after all Bert isn't like the other white men. But he is wrong. Instead the town of Davis mets out it's own form of justice.
The lynching has a dramatic and long-lasting effect on the Anderson family. Ansel's mother is appalled by her husband's lack of courage and yet not surprised by it. His actions reflect who he is - a man who tries to appease those he knows are evil and who cares about the profit of his business over the life of a man. Although Bert has never treated Maureen well and she has lived her life feeling dead, she is determined now that Ansel will not be like his father. And if he is not to be like his father he must leave Davis before it's too late.
Julius Lester explores the "culture" around lynchings - how it was a spectator sport with older people passing on this custom to their children and how people had their pictures taken next to the lynch victim. But we also see the lynching through the eyes of a white boy, the effect of keeping silent, of not telling the truth when a man's life depended upon it. The shame of that silence is something that lives with Ansel for the rest of his life.
There are plenty of themes to explore in Guardian and one of the most intense is that of identity. Perhaps Julius Lester explains it best in the Author's Note at the back of the book:
While the subject matter is a lynching, on a deeper level, this is a novel about identity. Whom and what we identify ourselves with determines our characters, determines who we are, and what we do. Whose opinion matters to you the most? When you know that, when you know whom it is you most care about pleasing, you know who you are. We make choices every day that shape the content of our characters.
While we might believe that Guardian is a book about the past, it is not. There is still much racial hatred in America and throughout the world. I was surprised to learn that other races have endured lynchings and that pictures of lynchings were once sold as postcards.
One thing I really like about the book is the use of the tree imagery at the beginning. Here is just a taste,
They talk among themselves about "the winter of sixty-two when the snow was so heavy it broke limbs on the Father oak tree in the church cemetery. We were worried he might not survive."...
But some trees do not speak, not even to the birds that find delicious insects hidden beneath their bark....
They do not speak because they are ashamed.
At least ones in the South are.
They were used for evil. Even though they could not defend themselves, they are still ashamed.....
I would recommend this book to older teens and young adults due to the strong mature content. There is rape, sadism and a great deal of sexual content.
Guardian by Julius Lester
New York: Harper Collins 2008