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:
- Dont 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 hes probably terrific at keeping heaven clean and safe and heavenly, but here on earth Hes let a lot of good come to a bad end. For no reason that I can see. Either that, or justice just isnt 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 hes tender-hearted, and he proves to be a wily foe for those bent on injustice.
Right away we know Dubs family situation is difficult. His mother asks her children to call her Doreen. Shes an alcoholic who thinks nigros shouldnt 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. Its 1961, and America is spinning unwillingly into the civil rights era.
Dubs father, a noble but sometimes naïve character, is a writer determined to let the neighborhood know about the terrorizing of the towns first black family. It takes the Duboiss 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 mothers rejection of Negroes. When the young daughter of the Dubois family, Ricky, takes a walk over to the Teeds, its 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 hadnt 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 Negros 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 theyre Negroes, but because theyre people in trouble. And this is the beginning of a story full of humor, bravery, kindness, as well as terror. Its 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 didnt 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 Susans tree and Dubs rock where they go to try to understand whats 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 cant 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 wholl 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 Hearts energetic language, and great characterizations, we learn to love these teenagers. The adults find out how to act from the young people: I dont 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, its still 1961 in America. Who is in trouble? Who needs help? Perhaps against his will Karl Luntta shows us that God isnt 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.