1959: A Novel
Author: Thulani Davis
Publisher: Grove Press (1992)
The year Willie Tarrant turned twelve was the year Billie Holiday died, Mickey and Sylvia were singing “Love is Strange” on the radio, and Willie had her first date. Her father and the other adults in town were worried about integration, but for Willie, that was just another problem she wouldn’t have a choice about facing, like pulling weeds or what to do about boys.
Some of the parents were afraid of what might happen when their children were sent to school with the rednecks in town, and some were concerned that the quality of the school wasn’t as high, but before long it was too late to worry. During the winter, eight black college students, wearing suits and ties and fresh haircuts, went into the local Woolworth’s and sat down at the lunch counter, and nothing was the same again anyway.
That was the year integration shook the little town of Turner, Virginia, like an earth tremor. As it shook harder and harder, the old ways began to crumble, and Willie’s world, her family, her own quiet and serious father were so changed that she couldn’t always recognize them. And in the newly exposed cracks in that old world, Willie discovered a world she never knew existed.
Thulani Davis’s 1959 is a rare combination of power and poignance, recalling Carson McCullers as strongly as it does James Baldwin. In its honesty and its deep generosity of spirit, 1959 brings to live a pivotal moment in American history, with all its violence, surprise, and glorious hope.