This week, Don reviews "Never" written by Joel F. Johnson.
Johnson’s debut novel, “Never,” seems very autobiographical in nature, but whether that is true or not, it doesn’t matter. The story is told cleanly, convincingly. Like his protagonist, Morris “Little” Nickerson, Johnson, a successful businessman originally from Columbus, Georgia, has been living in Concord, Massachusetts for decades.
Little is visiting his hometown, called here LaSalle, Georgia, and relating the story of his childhood there, as he remembers it. He tells us: “my hometown has a notorious past. People remember an old article from ‘Newsweek,’ or they’ve watched an episode about civil rights on ‘The American Experience.’” Thousands of Alabamians, from Birmingham or Selma or Anniston, can relate to that experience. Mention where you are from and the response will be a refence to the fire hoses, the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the burning bus.
The climactic event in this novel is a civil rights march, one of the first, in the early ’60s. A courageous and determined black pastor organizes it at his church and leads his people, peacefully, down the main street and then into the courthouse square, where they have been forbidden to go. Mass arrests follow, with beatings, men and women clubbed, some protesters taken 50 or 60 miles away to other county jails to make their releases more difficult. The police at the LaSalle march wear buttons that read “never,” and the mature Little knows that word means much more than “no integration.” It means “never pay an equal wage;” “never allow a voice or a scrap of hope;” “Never let a man, after five days’ work, take his wife into a restaurant and sit down for a nice meal.”
Looking back, Little realizes that although he did, truly, love and admire the family’s black maid, Bit, and his family believed they treated her with respect, he never really knew her or understood the life she led, the kind of house she lived in and the frustrations of raising a bright, ambitious daughter in a segregated world. Ordinarily, comparisons are a weak way to move through a book review but I was reminded strongly of Howell Raines’ Pulitzer-winning article on his family’s maid, “Grady’s Gift,” and, of course, Katherine Stockett’s novel “The Help.” Raines expressed similar chagrin over not understanding, in his youth, the roadblocks for a bright young black woman in Alabama and, famously, “The Help” explores the attitudes of some white families much less caring and less well-meaning.
In “Never,” bonds between good people who could have moved forward warmly together are fractured by the iron laws of segregation. But the novel is not a pamphlet. Johnson weaves together the home lives of Little and his sister Allyn, the maid Bit, his best friend Jamie, whose father, the Presbyterian minister Rev. James McAllister, is fired for joining the march. They must leave town, while Bit takes her daughter Emogene north to N.Y. to live a freer life.