Freshwater Road, a ten-year-old novel which has just been re-released, reads as if author Denise Nicholas is writing from the inside; that is, based on lived experience rather than research. The protagonist, Celeste Tyree, is a black, 19-year-old University of Michigan
Celeste has grown up in Detroit, is virtually middle-class in her values and economic situation. Her father, with whom she's been living earned enough running number to have bought a bar, support his mother, send Celeste to college, drive a Cadillac, and live in an integrated middle-class neighborhood. Because the book is set in 1964, Detroit is still a thriving metropolis and Mississippi is the Deep South that says "Never!" to the end of Jim Crow.
The One Man, One Vote headquarters in Jackson assigns Celeste to help register voters in a small, poor Pineyville, a town in which a lynching had taken place five years earlier. Pineyville is the kind of town in which Negroes get off the sidewalk when they meet a white, never look a white person in the eye, and can be arrested for coming into City Hall through the front door (there's a back door for blacks). This was the summer Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney were murdered—news that spreads among the Civil Rights workers—so Celeste lives in a miasma of fear. As soon as she arrives in Jackson and asks when she'll be sent to her assignment, a worker at the building tells her, "As soon as you're ready. Stay low to the floor at night. That apartment's been shot into."
One the book's pleasures (and there are many) is Nicholas's ability to compare and contrast the differences between classes, races, and ages. Celeste observes that Pineyville "wasn't some anonymous village in Africa or South America where people washed their clothes in a stream, emptied their bowels just yards away, and drank the water from the same stream just a few yards in the other direction. It was too close. She remembered Wilamena [her mother] years ago fussing against the way Negro people were portrayed in films. She refused to go see them, said she would not support some 'catfish row' rendition of Negro life."
Celeste cannot be sure that the handful of students she teaches in the Freedom School are absorbing the lessons. Nor are local blacks flocking to her evening voter registration classes in the local Negro church to learn how to register to vote—one requirement, apparently, being able to recite on demand any section of the Mississippi constitution from memory. That's if you weren't asked, "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" And among the many reasons not to register: Your white boss will fire you when he finds out.
White people barely exist in the book (there is, however, a stereotypically bigoted sheriff and a couple of thuggish state police). "Celeste marveled again at how the white people stayed so white even in the magnified sun of southern Mississippi. It was as if they weren't really there, or really live someplace else out of the sunshine, some place cool." The summer was unremittingly hot.
The book also conveys the complexity of the black experience. Celeste's mother has re-married to a man who can pass as white and moved from Detroit to New Mexico. One divorced (or abandoned) Negro mother in Pineyville is the mistress of a white storekeeper. A Negro neighbor abuses his wife and children and wants nothing to do with civil rights. The elderly woman with whom Celeste lives on Freshwater Road during the summer is quietly competent—and, to my mind remarkably brave. The black minister who had experienced (relative) freedom in Chicago as a college student has returned to Mississippi to lead his flock. Here's our first meeting with him:
"He has the sated tone of a well-cared for man. Sweat creeks trickled from his cropped sideburns, beaded his forehead. He took a handkerchief from the jacket hanging on the back of his chair and mopped his face. Every man who sat at Momma Bessie's table in Detroit [Celeste's paternal grandmother] got that look and sound. She took good care of them. Negro men triumphed in the kitchens of older Negro women, if nowhere else."
Celeste survives the summer, but she has been changed by the experience. And readers who allow themselves to enter fully into the world of Freshwater Road will, I believe, be also changed and realize that much of what was true in 1964 is still true and that a book that was first published in 2005 deserves new readers.