What happened in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957? Right, the Little Rock Nine. Now, how many people know what happened during the 1958-59 school year? (Unless you’re from Little Rock, a student of twentieth century American history, or just pay a lot of attention to the news at the time) Don’t worry, I didn’t either.
Just to be absolutely clear, The Lions of Little Rock is a novel through and through; while Levine did weave in a great many facts about what happened the academic year after the Little Rock high school was forced to integrate, the primary characters themselves are entirely fictional. The community’s reaction, however, is reasonably accurate, as were the actions of the Little Rock school board and city government, along with the Arkansas state government.
The Lions of Little Rock begins in the summer of 1958, just before school is set to begin. Marlee (named for Marlene Dietrich) is about to enter seventh grade; she loves math, despite the general consensus at the time that girls can’t do math or science…and she doesn’t talk. Well, not much anyway, and then only to people with whom she’s comfortable. Hardly anyone at school! Seventh grade means starting at a new school, which means breaking in a new set of teachers (and a few classmates) to the idea that she doesn’t want to talk. Until she meets Lisa.
Lisa is bold, outspoken and intelligent, capable of putting down even the school’s Resident Mean Girl, who regards herself as Marlee’s only friend, with a trenchant phrase. Lisa and Marlee become fast friends, although Marlee’s perplexed that Lisa never invites her over to visit. The two work together on a history project during which process Lisa works on Marlee’s reluctance to speak in public, on the theory that if she doesn’t speak, everyone else will assume that Lisa did all the work; they practice in the Little Rock zoo, rehearsing various parts of their project in front of various animals, though the lions are Marlee’s favorite. Partway through the fall term, Lisa disappears; the official story is that she’s ill, but the rumor that she’s actually black, enrolled in a white school1 under false pretences, quickly proves true.
The two girls remain friends, and continue to sneak off to various places—the quarry, the zoo—where they can meet unnoticed by their parents, who’ve forbidden the relationship to continue. These meetings are few and far between; even Lisa warms up only slowly to Marlee’s overtures, as she cannot believe that Marlee would be any different from all the other whitegirls, so snide about the Negroes2 that they cannot even comprehend using a brush that a Negro had used for fear of contracting lice. Perplexed as to how to proceed but unwilling to give up on the first friendship of her own choosing, Marlee turns to the family’s black maid, Betty Jean, though even there, Betty Jean makes the same suggestion as Lisa’s and Marlee’s parents: drop the friendship, it cannot work. Alas.
Things improve somewhat after Marlee tries to thwart the bombing of Lisa’s family. Their house is still badly damaged by the two sticks of dynamite she had to leave behind in the bomber’s trunk, but this at least reveals the bomber’s identity when she speaks up, and produces the evidence of her snapped-off letter opener blade in his trunk, where she was trapped. The book ends on a rueful note: things are going to get better eventually, but the children of this generation shouldn’t hold their breath for anything in the immediate future.
Overall, this reminded me of Anna Jean Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August in its acknowledgement that the process of truly integrating our society is a long and rocky one, and the author permits no sugar coating of dewy-eyed innocence on the part of the whites about the true nature of the situation. There is a certain degree of “out of the mouths of babes”, although even Marlee acknowledges that this is the way the world wags, at least in 1958 in Little Rock. There’s a touching scene in the black movie theater, when Marlee arrives unbeknownst to Lisa; it is only when her family’s (black) maid speaks up for Marlee that she is allowed to remain.
1at this point, it was only the high school which was integrated, though only nominally and even that was something of a moot point, as the School Board had chosen to close it rather than comply with the Federal order to integrate.
2the term used at the time! not mine.