Prince Edward, Dennis McFarland’s historical-fiction account of a community that defies court-ordered integration of its public schools, is a welcome addition to the documentaries, essays, and speeches that feted the recent 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.
Set in 1959 Farmville, the seat of Prince Edward County, Va., McFarland tells the story from the point of view of 10-year-old Benjamin Rome, an inquisitive white boy who just can’t see the logic behind segregation. Young Benny, the son of a segregationist chicken farmer, doesn’t understand why most of the white people in the county would rather close the schools than let Negro children attend them. Though the high court long ordered that schools be integrated, Prince Edward whites stand firm, developing “massive resistance” laws in protest. For many of them, integration means the end of their way of life, a system of white supremacy that allows them to have dominion over African-Americans. Still, Benny wonders, “What were the colored children to do without a public school to attend, and how could it possibly benefit the county to have a whole population of uneducated Negroes running around?”
Also complicating the story are several African-Americans who have a great impact on Benny’s life. Most important is his friend Burghardt, the son of a colored tenant farmer who’s unable to attend schools in the county and winds up moving to Philadelphia to receive an education, a common practice for many Prince Edward African-Americans who could afford it. There’s also Granny Mays, Burghardt’s grandmother, who Benny often secretly spies on as she goes into the woods to “steal away to Jesus” and pray for “justice for [her] people” as they seek civil rights.
History buffs will find Prince Edward to be a welcome relief from the documentaries and news accounts that have taken the spotlight in recent weeks. Whereas news accounts can be overly judgmental, hitting readers and viewers over the head with morality, McFarland uses the mind of a 10-year-old to retell the story of an important historic event, allowing readers to see how children considered such turbulent times. And by doing so, he strikes the perfect balance between childhood wonder and acute youthful intelligence, without being condescending or creating unbelievable childlike prose.