Title: Sources of Light
Author: Margaret McMullan
ISBN: 9780547076591
Pages: 233 pages
Publisher/Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2010.

One of the black women seated at the counter was a tall, pretty college-aged woman who carried a purse and two books. She could have been one of my mother’s students, except that she was black. She stared down at the space on the counter in front of her, saying nothing. […]
Those white men and boys were attacking her and she’d done nothing, but just by being there, by sitting there where she was not supposed to be sitting, she was doing something. They were screaming and getting so angry, their faces turned red. They made so much noise and their voices were so loud, you had to go quiet. I kept my eye behind the camera and snapped picture after picture. Then I quit taking pictures of what was happening. I took pictures of the crowd of angry white men yelling at the people at the lunch counter sitting there doing nothing. There were others in the crowd watching what was happening. They could have been looking at a circus performance or a child’s running race. They were smiling and cheering. They shared cigarettes. They were having a good time.
The policemen stood by and watched. (89-91)

Sam is a freshmen, starting Jackson High School after her mother moves there for a job teaching art following her father’s death in Vietnam. After living in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, moving to Jackson Mississippi in 1962 is a big change. Sam’s mother’s new “friend” Perry gives her a camera as a gift to make sense of all the new stuff she’s seeing. New stuff like the lunch counter sit-ins, the protests against African-Americans registering to vote, and the rampant prejudice. Conflicted about her feelings, Sam tries to fit in, especially with the popular classmate and her older brother. But Sam’s not really sure she wants to change who she is in order to make friends with people she really doesn’t agree with.

I found myself comparing this book to The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It doesn’t help the comparison that I read both stories close to each other. I think the most effective aspect of McMullan’s writing is that she doesn’t mince words. Just reading the passage I included reminds me of how invested readers are in the events that Sam is witnessing. Other books and authors I’ve read have described the sit-ins in a second or even third hand way, with people reading a newspaper article or by off-handed remarks. But McMullan places Sam in the thick of things; she sees first-hand the abuse these people undergo, the hate that was thrust onto African-Americans, and you can’t help but feel empathy instead of apathy.

It’s not just the sit-ins that readers are privy to through Sam’s eyes. Her feelings towards her neighbors change after her mother does something that rile up the neighborhood. Sam’s teacher seems to be the passive aggressive racist, continually encouraging in the classroom the stereotypes that blanket the town. An act of unspeakable violence ends the novel, which affects Sam and her family. Through it all, Sam and her mother appear stalwart.

I think that’s my one quibble regarding Sam’s character; Sam seems wise beyond her sheltered fourteen years. I hesitate to say sheltered, because admittedly she has lost her father as a result of the war, but prior to Mississippi Sam had lived in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania. While I’ll admit I’m not a fan of history lessons, I don’t think any of those homes could have prepared Sam for the hate that Mississippi showed her. She has a presence and a solid stance about life that belies her age, and even though she questions some aspects of Southern living, she is steady and grounded to the point where she sounds older than what she is.

All in all, I liked the story for its introspection and realistic portrayal of racist events, even if the voice didn’t ring entirely true to me.