Review Blog

Aug 30 2011

Down Sand Mountain by Steve Watkins

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Candlewick Press, 2011. ISBN 978 0 7636 4835 0.
(Ages 12+) Recommended. When Dewey Turner sees Darwin play Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy, dressed as a minstrel, he decides that he will take the part in the school production the following year, and so uses black shoe polish to cover his white skin in rehearsal. Unfortunately it will not come off, and the following day, his first day at high school, becomes miserable, as do the following weeks. He is bullied about being a coloured boy, called Sambo, not allowed to use the toilet, because it is whites only, and older boys do random acts of intimidation, like taking his lunch, during his school days. Outside school, it is not much better as he tries to make friends with others of his age in the neighbourhood.
The only person he is able to befriend is another outsider, Darla, who wears her hair like Shirley Temple, and sings and dances. Together the two become aware of bigger issues within their neighbourhood.
An almost frightening look at middle America in the mid 1960's, when teachers taught America versus Communism, and spoke of The Society for Coloured People, and Martin Luther King Jr as being communists, and fathers were called 'sir' and took off their belts to punish their sons for misdemeanors, the background of racism is evident. The janitor at the high school, in the all white neighbourhood of Tampa, is black, and is about the only black person this narrow community sees. So when Dewey and his brother are told by their father to drop his leaflets at the homes in the poor black suburb, their eyes are opened to the inequality and racism which exists around them. The novel becomes a coming of age story where Dewey eyes are opened not only to racism, but the effects of the Vietnam War, abuse and his own sexuality, giving the reader a definitive look at USA in the 1950's and 1960's when segregation was the norm.
Fran Knight

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