Peace Corps Writers
Review
(Buy this book)
Know It by Heart
by Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80)
Curbstone Press
June, 2003
256 pages
$15.95

Read an interview with Karl at the Curbstone.org.

Know It by Heart
  Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire, 1973–74; Ethiopia, 1974–75)
 
  
ATTICUS FINCH WOULD LOVE this book, James Baldwin would love this book. Martin Luther King is reading it in heaven — probably quarreling with God in the same way the young speaker quarrels with God in the opening paragraph:
Don’t even talk about pestilence and poverty and disease, or the fact that God took paradise away from us just because a guy ate an apple . . . . God may have a winning message, and he’s probably terrific at keeping heaven clean and safe and heavenly, but here on earth He’s let a lot of good come to a bad end. For no reason that I can see. Either that, or justice just isn’t his strong point.

     I love the way this book opens. The speaker, a young man named Dub Teed, has a strong voice that satisfies the reader throughout the entire event-filled book. He can be funny, and he’s tender-hearted, and he proves to be a wily foe for those bent on injustice.
     Right away we know Dub’s family situation is difficult. His mother asks her children to call her “Doreen.” She’s an alcoholic who thinks “nigros” shouldn’t move into the white neighborhood of East Hartford — and a few days after the Dubois family moves in, something awful happens. “There on the lawn, casting the slightest of shadows in the oncoming dawn, was a charred wooden cross made of two, two by fours,” soon to be followed by swastikas and bullets through their door. It’s 1961, and America is spinning unwillingly into the civil rights era.
     Dub’s father, a noble but sometimes naïve character, is a writer determined to let the neighborhood know about the terrorizing of the town’s first black family. It takes the Dubois’s elderly grandmother to remind him of her own experience of history. “As God is my witness, we just have to be stronger than they are.”
     The Teed children, Susan and Dub, have been born into good humor and a passion for justice despite their mother’s rejection of Negroes. When the young daughter of the Dubois family, Ricky, takes a walk over to the Teed’s, it’s fast love between her and Dub. Unfortunately, love has to be on the back burner when the crank calls and name-calling and swastikas begin — something the Dubois family hadn’t expected in the North. Doreen refuses to allow her children to visit the Dubois home. And a neighbor, Mrs. Churman, “[sends] back furniture that had been handled by Negroes,” as if they brought the plague with them. Soon Dub realizes that he has everything to learn about a Negro’s life.
     His dad (Pop to his children) is a great teacher. What Pop decides is that “We can show them some compassion and support . . . . Not just because they’re Negroes, but because they’re people in trouble.” And this is the beginning of a story full of humor, bravery, kindness, as well as terror. It’s a story these young people will never forget. So much is new for them.
     Ricky suffers all, though she has a steadfast bravery throughout the book. “She is bright as a headlight,” Dub thinks, even though some people look right through her — “being black made her invisible.” Ricky and her family sense that her friends’ naiveté is part of the problem: As Dub said, “It didn’t seem that there was any reason yet to run. After all, it was only one cross-burning, and maybe the guy who did it had since had a heart attack, or maybe choked on a piece of meat, or something.”
     The young people in this novel, both black and white, begin to talk about what it means to be a Negro. The Ku Klux Klan comes into their vocabulary. And Dub imagines himself not only in love with Ricky, but coming to her rescue. Gangs of white guys add to the name-calling — “jigaboo” and “spook.” Gangs so dangerous that someone could easily be killed. And there are adults like Doreen and Officer Bigger who are the worst possible models for these teenagers.
     The writer wisely interrupts some of the concentration on the sufferings of the Dubois family, and gives readers trips to the circus, the wisdom of a Korean shopkeeper, and Susan’s tree and Dub’s rock where they go to try to understand what’s happening around them. The circus is a big distraction, welcome in the midst of so much trouble. Yet even in that setting, injustice can be found.
     One of the most frustrating experiences for Susan, Ricky, Dub, and their friends, is that they are not always believed or understood by the adults, whether parents or police officers. Often it seems they can’t depend on the help of grownups and have to find their own way to rescue the endangered.
     Dub and Ricky and Susan prove to be willing fighters who’ll do what they can to save their friends. A great strength of the book is its confidence that teenagers will act on behalf of others, selflessly.
     Through Know It By Heart’s energetic language, and great characterizations, we learn to love these teenagers. The adults find out how to act from the young people: “I don’t like the way Officer Farley called Ricky ‘that Negro girl,’” says Pop.
     Know It By Heart is a great book to read for yourself, but even more exciting to teach to a class of young people. In some ways, it’s still 1961 in America. Who is in trouble? Who needs help? Perhaps against his will Karl Luntta shows us that God isn’t such a bad guy as Dub thought. After all, as the teenagers in this book understand, He can depend on them to know what to do by heart.

 
Margaret Szumowski is an Associate Professor of English at Springfield Technical Community College. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Willow Springs, American Poetry Review, Poetry East, The Agni Review, River Styx, as well as in a chapbook, Ruby's Cafe. Her first book-length collection of poetry, I Want This World, was published by Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press. She is the winner of the 2002 Peace Corps Writers prize for poetry.
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