Book review

New YA novel sheds light on civil rights era

Chicago TribuneJune 6, 2010 

Book tours are grueling but not without their moments of sweetness. And so it was that Margaret McMullan, author of a captivating new young adult novel, "Sources of Light" (Houghton Mifflin), recently found herself back in Mississippi, the setting for her illuminating story.

At a book signing, McMullan was approached by a man who offered her the recipe for the single best dessert in the history of the world: "He said, 'Put a Moon Pie in the microwave until it's just a little jiggly,'" McMullan recalls with delight, "and then you're supposed to take it out and add a scoop of Bluebonnet vanilla ice cream."

The recipe has a distinctly Southern flavor, and who doesn't like chocolate, marshmallows and ice cream, its central ingredients? The same is true of McMullan's novel: It is infused with the rhythms and customs of its Southern setting, but no matter where you're from, you can enjoy it.

Kid in a new town

"Sources of Light" takes place in 1962. Fourteen-year-old Samantha has just moved to Jackson, Miss., with her widowed mother.

Racial tensions grip the city. There is a new feeling in the nation, as African-Americans stand up for the rights long denied them through segregation. For some Mississippians, however, the changes are unwelcome. They are determined to make trouble.

All Samantha knows, though, is that she doesn't have any friends and that she misses her father, who died in combat in Vietnam. "Maybe I wasn't tough enough for this new high school," she frets. "Maybe I wasn't ready for this new year in our new hometown."

Things start looking up for Samantha, however, when she starts looking up at things - not just with her eyes, but with a camera. A friend of her mother's teaches her how to take pictures.

She should photograph, he advises her, "anything you would paint. Anything you look at or wonder about or want to know more about."

It ends up being an eventful year for Samantha, just as it was for the nation. Among the virtues of this clear, luminous novel is its ability to present tumultuous historical events through the eyes and dawning sensibility of an intelligent young girl.

"The best stories are sometimes the hardest ones to tell," says McMullan from her home in Evansville, Ind., where she teaches English at the University of Evansville. "So many students today don't know about what happened in the 1960s. They can't define a sit-in."

"I've had this material with me a long time. There are so many opposites in the cultural history of Mississippi. Such a mix of the good and the bad."

McMullan and her family lived in Jackson from 1963 to 1969. They moved to Deerfield, Ill., just in time for her to attend high school. After graduation from Grinnell College, she worked for three years in magazine publishing in New York. Then she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arkansas. She has taught at the University of Evansville for two decades.

"Sources of Light" is her fourth book for young adults. "Cashay" (2009) is about a young girl who lives in Cabrini Green, the Chicago public housing project.

"When I Crossed No-Bob" (2007) is set during Reconstruction, while "How I Found the Strong" (2004) takes place during the Civil War.

"I feel like I've been working my way through my country's history," McMullan says.

An eye on authenticity

How does she make her young characters so authentic? She keeps an eye on her 13-year-old son, James, McMullan says. And she has another trick up her sleeve: "I visit a lot of schools to talk about reading and writing. That's my secret way of researching. They don't know it, but I'm watching. It doesn't take much to imagine your way back into that time."

McMullan returns frequently to Mississippi, where she still has family -- and where you're liable to pick up a good Moon Pie recipe when you least expect it.

"Mississippi has a completely different feel from any other state," she says. "I like going back down there, to figure it out -- as if anybody can."

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