No one really knows what makes a friend a friend. Is it shared interests? Common goals? Or is it something intangible, something maybe a little bit magic that binds us? Perhaps the universe chooses our friends for us, not necessarily the people we want, but the people we need. And sometimes the people we need are the ones we least expect. Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock gives us a portrait of such a friendship, set against the backdrop of racial unrest and upheaval.
Twelve-year-old Marlee’s life is about to turn upside down. It’s 1958 in Little Rock, Arkansas, the year after the famous Little Rock Nine and the high schools are closing over the issue of integration. This means her older sister Judy is displaced, eventually sent to live away from home so she can go to school. This is a big problem for Marlee, because Judy was one of the few people she could talk to. Literally. Marlee is not what you would call chatty. But with Judy gone, and her friends testing the boundaries of friendliness, Marlee feels more alone than ever. Enter Liz, a new student. In Liz, Marlee finds someone to talk to, someone who challenges her and appreciates her for who she is. That is, until one day Liz is gone. She doesn’t return to school, and rumor has it she’s really black, and has been passing for white. Marlee’s life is thrown into turmoil. She feels betrayed, lied to. But the more she thinks about it, the more she simply wants her friend back. This leads Marlee to the front lines of the integration battle in Little Rock, and into some very dangerous situations on the road to self-discovery and finding her own voice.
The Lions of Little Rock is a book full of historical detail. The characters are fictional, but groups such as the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our School (WEC) and Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP) came from real events. Levine made the right move setting the book where she did, because while the story of the Little Rock Nine is better known, what happened after is less so. I was intrigued by the notion of the governor simply closing schools rather than integrate, (something I don’t remember ever being taught in school) the adult version of throwing a hissy fit, with more serious results. Readers are given examples of people on both sides of the fence, and Levine seeks to explain their motivations, though some are motivated by nothing more than hate. This isn’t a complete picture of the Little Rock situation, but it does give a good glimpse through the eyes of young Marlee.
Marlee herself is a well-drawn character. Her selective mutism makes her a little passive in the beginning, but as her voice grows, so does her courage. By the end, she is making plans and forging ahead into unknown and possibly perilous waters. We see everything as Marlee sees it, so we experience her own prejudices and how she is able to overcome them. Marlee’s parents are equally compelling. It would have been easy to paint her father as progressive and her mother as backward, but Levine never falls to such cardboard cutouts. Both parents have the good and bad about them, and it’s easy to see where Marlee comes from when given the two. My only real complaint with the book is with the character of Liz. Even with all her cards on the table, she is a bit of a mystery. We don’t know what she was really feeling when she enrolled in Marlee’s school. We don’t know how she relies on her friendship with Marlee, and how she really feels when that friendship is taken away. Throughout the book, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if it had been told in alternating voices. I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing half, maybe even the more interesting half, of the story.Despite my misgivings, I did enjoy The Lions of Little Rock. I enjoyed Marlee’s voice, and her courage. Given that issues of hate and race have never left us, we could all use a little bit of Marlee’s nerve in our heads.
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
2012, Putnam Juvenile
2012, Putnam Juvenile