Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Mother The Cheerleader. A Novel by Robert Sharenow

My Mother The Cheerleader explores a very specific event in 20th century American history; the desegregation of schools in 1960 in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. This event is recounted through the eyes of thirteen year old Louise Collins, who lives with her mother, Pauline, in their boardinghouse, Rooms On Desire.

Life for young Louise is uneventful until desegregation is ordered for the Ninth Ward's all-white elementary schools. In November 1960, six black girls are permitted to attend the schools; one of these girls, Ruby Bridges, is enrolled in Louise's school, William Frantz Elementary School. This has resulted in the white students being pulled from school in protest and a group of mothers known as "the cheerleaders" gathering every morning to taunt and harass little Ruby as she is walked into the school by federal marshals.

"The cheerleaders" are a group of foul-mouthed women who received a great deal of media attention and who also drew the ire of writer John Steinbeck, one of Louise's favourite authors. His views on the Cheerleaders didn't really sit well with Louise because, like those opposed to segregation, he too tended to dehumanize those he didn't agree with. But Louise believes that what we see on the outside isn't necessarily the full picture.
"I don't blame Mr. Steinbeck for writing what he did. He saw my mother and the other Cheerleaders from the outside looking in. From that point of view, I'm sure he thought he was painting a very accurate portrait. However, I saw my mother and her friends from the inside. And I've found that people always tend to look different from that angle, when you can really get in close and get a good look at all the details that hang just below the surface."
So My Mother The Cheerleader tells the story of Louise's mother, over a period of a few days, and what happens when she meets a friend of John Steinbeck who comes to stay at their boardinghouse. This friend, Morgan Miller, arrives in the Ninth Ward with the intention of reconnecting with his brother. Unlike most of the men who frequent Rooms on Desire, Morgan is a gentleman, confident and "usually comfortable in his own skin and with the world in general." He treats Pauline with respect and Louise with a gentle kindness, often helping smooth things over for her, when her mother is harsh.

Louise who has been pulled from school decides to spend her time "snooping" on Morgan. She wants to know who he is, because he's so different from anyone who has ever stayed at the boardinghouse. However, Louise's snooping reveals secrets she's not prepared for, about her mother, about herself, and about the world.

Looking back on this event, almost 52 years later, it seems almost incredible that a little 6 year old black girl would need a contingent of federal agents to see that she got to school unharmed. It's hard to believe people held these views and that some still do.  My Mother The Cheerleader provides readers the opportunity to try to understand the views people held in 1960 about race and civil rights and does so very effectively. These people were judges, lawyers, teachers, mothers, fathers and children, and just like anyone else living in the United States in 1960. Some were outstanding citizens, while others were just ordinary folk.

We are treated to the southern white view of desegregation when Pauline violently argues with Morgan about why black children shouldn't be attending white schools. Her prejudice, like those of her peers, goes much deeper though and doesn't just include black people. When Pauline is attacked and Louise goes to the home of their black cook, Charlotte Dupree, for help, the reader learns why each race can't help the other, even if they wanted to, even in deadly circumstances, simply because of the class restrictions in place at that time. What would be needed is an act of supreme courage, to go against the conventions of society at that time. And we come to see what happens to those in the segregated South, who believe all men are created equal, and who stand up for that belief. All of these are teachable moments, woven seamlessly into this brilliant story by author, Robert Sharenow.

One of the elements I especially liked about this novel was the depth of characterization. While some of the characters are stereotypical, (there's the typical "red-necks" and earthy no-nonsense black maid) it still works because the characters are believable. Each person, Pauline,  Louise, Charlotte Dupree, Morgan Miller and even minor characters, are well drawn and yet are not what they seem to be.  For example, Louise's mother, Pauline is the stereotypical single mother; lazy, not a good mother to her child, a heavy drinker, and "loose" around men. She is loud, self-absorbed, and vain. Yet we learn later on in the novel that she is not really what she appears to be on the outside - she has compassion and really does love Louise.

There is the wonderful theme of courage throughout the novel, not just on the part of Ruby Bridges, but also in the characters of Morgan Miller and surprisingly - or maybe not, Pauline Collins. Courageous acts come in all sizes and ways.

If you'd like to read more about the real Ruby Bridges, you can check out her website, Ruby Bridges where Ms. Bridges talks about her experiences in 1960.  Ruby Bridges spent her first year at William Frantz being escorted each and every day through the lines of white working class women known as "the cheerleaders" whose sole purpose was to confront the child and block her path into the school. Many adults helped Ruby through this difficult time in her life, especially her mother who encouraged her and reminded her of God's love and protection, and her white teacher, Mrs. Henry, who recognized Ruby's dignity and personhood.

Book Details:
My Mother The Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow
Laura Geringer Books (HarperCollins Publishers)    2007
289 pp.

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