Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

This novel is like an exploding bottle of Mountain Dew that showers everyone with emotion, fear, friendship, and hope. Thirteen-year-old Marlee chooses not to talk out loud. She'll confide with her sister and talk with her family or Sally, her friend from kindergarten, but it is not much. She's no chatterbox, that's for sure, nor is she a selective mute. She talks in her head and deals with stress by reciting the times tables or prime numbers. She usually describes people in her head as types of drinks. When she meets Liz, Marlee astounds herself by speaking three words out loud, "Please sit down." She wonders if Liz is wholesome as whole milk or if she is a shot of whiskey. "I couldn't place her, and it made me nervous." When she later learns Liz's secret, things take a dangerous turn, but by then they are best friends and Marlee is going to stick by Liz no matter what. The problem? Marlee endangers Liz's life and really doesn't realize the magnitude of hatred, divisiveness, and bigotry in the town of Little Rock, Arkansas.

The tension makes this a page turner and the life-and-death situations really amp up the excitement, especially since Marlee's radar doesn't detect the extent of racial hate that exists in Little Rock. She makes decisions that threaten her safety scaring her parents and Liz's, but she and other youths don't realize that people will commit murder over the color of skin. She only sees herself as sticking up for a friend. We applaud Marlee when she finds her voice that she didn't know she had and shows courage and strength in suffering.

The character of Marlee and how she changes is like a flower blooming. I love how she uses numbers to size up people, control herself from blurting angry words at others, or describe relationships such as with her mom, "So we didn't talk, and by not talking we made it even worse. It was like a repeating decimal. You can divide 10 by 3 for as long as you want, but all you're going to get is 3.33333 with evermore 3s after it. There had to be some way to finish the problem." (p. 170) It's wonderful how Liz teaches Marlee to be brave and speak out loud and then Marlee teaches Liz how to not get angry and have outbursts against those teasing her. The two become real friends and it reminded me of the blast I had with my best friend growing up. Like Liz, my friend, dared me to climb a tree and I got stuck swaying in the boughs like Marlee because I was too terrified to scamper down.

I wanted the supporting characters such as Liz more developed, especially toward the end of the novel. I found my interest waning at the end when Marlee starts to sound too perfect and too grown-up. The leap from being slightly immature to being a wise woman was too great for me. She sounds like a teacher at the end, such as when she talks to JT, "JT," I said gently, "you're thirteen. Your brother is not an excuse. It's time you started thinking for yourself" (223) or when she shrugs off Sally being vain and not caring about the issues (228) or when she isn't angry at Liz's mother for not letting them even talk on the phone or when she agrees to being punished for jumping in the trunk. I'm not sure the danger of the girls talking on the phone except the mother was that scared, but the mother already knew the huge danger she was placing her daughter in, so it doesn't make much sense that she is that fearful, although it does add more drama and tension. I also thought Marlee would show more anger. Yes, she's level-headed and smart but she's also thirteen and the 13-year-olds I know tend to be more self-centered and get angry as learn the meaning of injustice.

I kind of wished the book had ended when Marlee's mom finally takes a stand. That was a heartwarming emotional scene with nice repetition to dramatize the message. After that section, the plot seemed forced with Marlee in the trunk of the car and forgetting the dynamite. Marlee is an extremely bright, level-headed, detailed girl, but her not grabbing the dynamite seemed out of character even if the situation was highly stressful. I see how the author uses the dynamite to push things to an extreme, but that's the section where I started to notice the plot structure and wasn't as swept along with the story as in previous pages. That said, it adds great tension and plenty of action.

I really liked the development of Marlee and Liz's friendship. I did wish the adults were more fleshed out as characters. I was so happy when Marlee's mom finally stood up, but I still wanted more after that; it seemed that Marlee was still teaching her mom more than her mom was teaching Marlee. There were a few too many comments on Marlee's bravery from mom and I wanted her mom to show more depth. I also didn't like that Mr. Harding didn't intervene when he knew Marlee was cheating for JT. He saw her every day for lunch! Crikey, he had plenty of chances to bring up the issue and they do talk at the end but it seems awfully late in the plot. It is  the teacher's responsibility to keep kids safe and I think Mr. Harding would have done something. If he was a jerk of teacher then I could see him choosing to ignore it, but as a conscientious teacher, I didn't buy it that he wouldn't say anything. BUT, I am an adult reader and a teacher with my own biases. I don't think young readers will notice.

Christianity is used as the author weaves 1 Peter 3:14 throughout the story to emphasize suffering to do the right thing and not being afraid. There is some romance but only kids asking each other on dates or going to the movies. The characters are dealing with academic cheating, relationships, and abuse. The abuse is not gone into great depth but it shows one family with the father possibly abusing the wife and the older brother abusing the younger brother. Lots to mull over in this terrific novel and the tension and fear of racism during the 1950s is well-captured by the author. It's obvious that she did quite a bit of research for this book and she lists more resources in the Author's Note at the end. Marlee changes dramatically from start to finish which makes her interesting even if I thought the changes made her sound a little too old by the end. The author carefully shows how Marlee gains courage finding a voice to speak out and learning to face fears such as flying, climbing a tree, or going off a high dive. While the ending is too pat for me the book as a whole tastes like a carbonated soda. Enjoy!

Reading Level 3.9
4 out of 5 Stars

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