August 10, 2011
Margaret McMullan, Casting Light into Shadows

Margaret McMullan wrote about writers: “Our job is to reflect and interpret trouble.” If this is true, she does her job brilliantly in Sources of Light, a young adult novel published in 2010.

The “trouble” in this case is the dangerous and dramatic situation in the early 1960s when the South was forced to reconsider segregation. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, Sources of Light is a time capsule of that violent and revolutionary era in American history.

Fourteen-year-old Samantha Russell has just moved to Jackson with her mother after her father’s death in Vietnam. Her mother, Martha, takes a job teaching at a small college and immediately runs into trouble with her politically incorrect Northern ideas about integration and educational opportunities for African Americans. When she gives a lecture at Tougaloo, a historically black college in the Jackson area, the words “We’re watching” are painted in red on their front door.

As Sam is learning about her place as a member of her father’s traditional white Southern family, she is also finding her way through the usual tangle of adolescent issues: friendships, fitting in, and of course boys. Her mother is also starting a new relationship, with Perry Walker, a photography instructor at her college. He teaches Sam to use a camera, and the two of them document the explosive happenings in Jackson, Perry deliberately, Sam accidentally. The book’s climax is shocking and sobering, reminding us of the human cost of those days of intense conflict.

I once had the privilege of touring Tougaloo in the company of other state humanities council program officers during a national workshop. We met the college president and visited the different areas on campus, including both the impressive new library and the historic district of campus buildings on the National Register. It was my first visit to a historically black college or university, and the sense of history was overwhelming. We were told about the saying back in the time of trouble: “If you could make it to the gates of Tougaloo, you would be safe.”

That Margaret McMullan is able to echo that fearful sensation and capture an adolescent’s experience surrounded by these momentous events, yet do it in a natural and compelling story suitable for all ages, is remarkable. Like a photographer using light and shadow to interpret a subject, she shows us the elements of change and resistance to change that clashed in the South.

Margaret McMullan was recently announced as the winner of the 2011 National Author award from the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award program, sponsored by the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation.

This post was written by Nancy Conner, director of grants at Indiana Humanities.

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