“My Year in the Middle”
Author: Lila Quintero Weaver
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Price: $15.99 (Hardcover)
Lila Quintero Weaver made her publishing debut with a most unusual book, “Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White,” a graphic memoir in 500 drawings with sparse texts that told of her childhood years growing up in Marion, Alabama, during the Civil Rights era. “Darkroom” was a considerable success, winning a number of prizes and translated, so far, into French and Swedish.
Young Lila Quintero was not your average citizen of Marion, having immigrated to the United States with her family in 1961 from Argentina. Lila was definitely “not from around here” and occupied a unique and in many ways difficult and lonely place in the town’s demography.
This sense of not fitting easily into the local culture is strong in “My Year in the Middle.”
Written for young readers, “My Year in the Middle” is narrated by sixth grader Lu Olivera, an immigrant from Argentina, a small, bright, intelligent girl who has not been indoctrinated with racial prejudice.
It is the spring of 1970 and school integration in fictional Red Grove, Alabama has just begun. The local segregationist academy is still being formed and will open in the fall, with many of the white students ready to jump.
In her classes at the present, however, the students sit with the white kids on one side, the African-American kids on the other, and a couple, including Lu, a brown-skinned Latina, and Sam, the child of liberals, sitting literally and in every other way, in the middle.
As a person of color, Lu is on the edge of being discriminated against and her best defense against that would be standard racial prejudice, but it just isn’t in her.
Maintaining a strictly neutral position isn’t possible either, since the spring of 1970 was the season of the most rancid political race in Alabama history, in which George Wallace would pull out all the stops to defeat incumbent Albert Brewer. In the novel, Wallace comes to town, and at a rally gives a hateful, racist speech in which he calls Brewer “Sissy-pants.”
Lu, a fairly naïve 12-year-old, goes to the rally with a friend to enjoy the cakewalk and later writes a report on it for extra credit in social studies, but when she declares she regrets going, this satisfies neither the mean white girls nor her black friends nor her few liberal friends, especially Sam, her crush, whose liberal pastor father gets death threats.
For a while, Lu is an unhappy, lonely girl. She is not cool. Mama, a traditional Argentine, is very strict, would insist on chaperones if she could. Lu, a shy soul, doesn’t attract boys’ attention and doesn’t like her hair, but she discovers an unexpected joy in running, just plain running. At first, this is inflicted on the kids by the mean gym teacher, then Lu and her black friend Belinda train together, with Lu finally in a race with the third fastest sixth-grade girl in Alabama.
Finding this passion, something she can enjoy and excel at, is a kind of salvation, bringing a modicum of confidence.
Lu’s narrative is articulate and intelligent but she is still a child who cannot fully grasp all the social currents around her.
I have road-tested this novel on one 13-year-old girl, my granddaughter, who declares it “a very accurate representation of middle school.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.