Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

Stella By Starlight tells the story of being a Negro American during the 1930's. The Civil War had ended only sixty-seven years earlier, outlawing slavery. But the bigotry continues on in a segregated south.

Ten year old Stella Mills lives with her father Jonah, her mother Georgia and her younger brother Jojo in the segregated south, in a town called Bumblebee, North Carolina, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Set in 1932, Bumblebee is segregated, meaning blacks live in one part of the town with their own school and church and white people live in another part of town. The black folks mostly work as cooks, maids and janitors, with few men allowed to work at the sawmill in town. The Negro families take care of one another, expecting little help from the white folk.

It all starts one night when Stella and Jojo witness a Klu Klux Klan meeting across Kilkenny Pond in the middle of the night. They secretly watch nine figures dressed in white robes with pointy hats burn a wooden cross. From their hidden spot, Stella is certain she recognizes the bridle of the horse belonging to the white doctor, Dr. Packard.

Stella and her brother Jojo tell their parents what they saw and their mom and dad convene a meeting immediately that night at their home of some of the Negro parents, including the only Negro doctor, Dr. Hawkins.  While the adults meet, Stella sits outside on the porch steps with Tony, Dr. Hawkins' son. Tony tells Stella that he runs on the track at the white school, something that is forbidden for a black boy. He tells her his dream of being like the "Midnight Express", Eddie Tolan who won two gold medals at the recent Los Angeles Olympics. Tony is determined to run someday in the Olympics. The two children are frightened by the night's events and try to figure out the meaning of the Klan's sudden reappearance in their town.

As her father reads the white and Negro newspapers the next morning Stella questions her father as to why they don't do more. She questions why the Negro paper, The Truth Unbridled, doesn't publish the Klan meeting her father tells her the situation is not as simple as it appears. "Never be afraid to be honest and stand up for what is right, Stella...Just remember to balance your courage with wisdom." He tells her trying to catch the Klan is "like nailing jelly to a tree"

Stella and Jojo and the other black children attend Riverside School for black students while the white students attend Mountain View. Mountain View, with its brick building and well manicured lawn, is known for its academic and sports successes. The students at Mountain View are better off, having shoes and warm coats for the winter while like most black children in the area, Stella and her brother walk to school barefoot. On their way to school they meet Carolyn Malone who is Stella's best friend, five of the thirteen Spencer children, Johnsteve Winston, Randy Bates and Tony Hawkins. The group stop at Mrs. Cathy Cooper's store, Cathy's Candy Store, the white proprietor whose friendliness towards the black children doesn't go unnoticed by Stella. She also allows the children to enter by the front door unlike most other store owners in Bumblebee. White children also enter the store, including Paulette Packard, Dr. Packard's daughter and Barbara Osterman whose father owns the mill. Barbara wonders why they have to attend separate schools, but a white boy, Kenneth, mocks the black children saying they will "never amount to anything."

Stella doesn't like to write because she finds writing challenging. Unable to complete her writing assignment at school, Mrs. Grayson tells her she needs to try harder and finish her work. To help her think better, Stella likes to sneak outside after everyone has gone to sleep.

The black community comes together when "Spoon Man", as Terence Oglethorpe, a traveling salesman is known, comes to visit Bumblebee. Spoon Man travels all over North Carolina, selling cookware, tools and trinkets. He tells them that the Depression has made everyone desperate for change especially in the upcoming presidential election and that he's heard about the reemergence of the Klu Klux Klan in the Bumblebee area. Stella's father indicates to Spoon Man that he wants to vote. "I live in this country and I oughta be allowed to vote!" Dr. Hawkins tells the men that there are now poll taxes and a literacy test about the Constitution before blacks can vote. The KKK are also informed of any black man who tries to register to vote. Hawkins suggests to Jonah that maybe he wait for a better time to push the right to vote but Jonah questions when that time will come.

At church on Sunday, Pastor Patton tells the congregation that he is going into Spindale to register to vote in the morning and he welcomes any man who wants to accompany him. That night at dinner Stella's parents argue about Jonah going to register, but the next morning he meets Pastor Patton along with Mr. Spencer at the Spindale Election office. However, the registrar, Mr. Amherst Pineville, is hostile towards the group and determined to do everything in his power to prevent them from registering. They are forced to pay two dollars to register and must also take a test, while white men who walk in are allowed to register immediately. Eventually they are registered but Pineville warns them that trouble will be coming their way. When trouble does come, Stella and her family and the rest of the black community must pull together to get through a devastating fire and an accident that almost kills Stella's mother.

Discussion

Sharon M. Draper is an award winning author, educator, poet and speaker. On her website, Draper states that she tries to take readers "along on my journey". Stella By Starlight does just that. It is a journey back to 1932 America, suffering through the beginnings of the Depression. Everyone is struggling to cope with poor economic conditions and a drought gripping the Midwest. Prejudice against the black community is on the rise. Society continues to be segregated with blacks having their own schools, churches and doctors. Many jobs are not open to blacks who tend to be in low income jobs. Few own the land they farm. They are not allowed to use the town library. Nor does the American Army want them (an attitude that will gradually change in World War II) It's also the year of the Olympics in Los Angeles and a presidential election.

Stella By Starlight reveals the depth of the prejudice in 1930's America when the Spencer's home is burned to the ground by the Klu Klux Klan, when Stella's mother almost dies from a poisonous snake bike because Dr. Packard, who treats "white patients" only, hardheartedly refuses to treat her, and when Tony Hawkins is set upon by a group of white boys who kick and punch him. However, Draper is careful to show that not all the white people are prejudiced. Cathy Cooper treats Stella and the other black children the same as the white children. Annie Lou Summers and her sister Mary Lou bring food and clothing from the white Bumblebee Baptist Church for the Spencer family after the fire.

More importantly Stella By Starlight is story about community, a place where everyone is knit together by their common history and their concern for one another. The loss of the Spencer's home sees the community donate so much clothing that Stella and Jojo finally get new clothes and shoes - because Mrs. Spencer is "glad to be able to give as well as take". When Stella's mother is dying from the snake bite, Mrs. Odom, who never "takes the car out for fear of getting dust on it" drives to Raleigh to get Dr. Hawkins and bring back the antivenin. It is this sense of family, the idea that I am my brother's keeper, that helps everyone to endure the hard times and savor the good ones.

Stella By Starlight also demonstrates that children aren't born prejudiced - they learn it from adults and the society around them. Some of the children in Cathy's Candy Store believe its ridiculous that they must attend separate schools. They obviously recognize that regardless of skin colour, kids are kids. Draper often juxtaposes acts of kindness against acts of prejudice. For example, when Stella goes to get medicine for her sick brother at the general store, Mr. O'Brian allows her to pay for her purchases with what little money she has. Immediately after leaving the general store, she and Tony are set upon by a gang of white youths who beat up Tony accusing him of stealing the candy he paid for.

Draper has written a very good novel that captures the reality of life in America for blacks in the 1930's. All of her characters are well drawn, believable and unique, from the heroine, Stella Mills, to the antihero, Dr. Packard. The seed for Stella By Starlight came from Draper's own grandmother, Estelle Twitty Mills Davis, who was forced to leave school in grade five but who spent her nights after everyone was asleep, outside writing in her journal.

For more information about the Klu Klux Klan please see the History Channel website.

For information on life in American during the 1930's readers are referred to the Project MUSE website.

Book Details:
Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers     2015
320 pp.

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