Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Friday, September 21, 2012 12:00 PM
You’re dealing with unhealthy insularity when a character shown reading a book about Gandhi is accused of gleaning “funny ideas” – and if you have an inkling of the history of civil rights in the United States and of the particular, peculiar role of the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you’ll know there was a time when attempts to embody the independence leader’s teaching of non-violent passive resistance were met with police dogs and fire hoses.
It is in this incendiary environment that Angel Dunbar, the teenage heroine of New Zealand writer Steve Theunissen’s Through Angel’s Eyes, finds herself fighting for many things, not least of which are her family’s safety and a sense of how to participate in what she recognizes as an essential but dangerous movement. Angel’s world is so unfamiliar to a New Zealand reader as to seem entirely fictional, but Theunissen anchors his narrative, and lends gravitas to it, with reference to notorious historical events.
(In her own debut novel The Help, which addressed some similar themes, Kathryn Stockett illustrated her characters’ vulnerability by recounting the assassination of Medgar Evers from the perspective of his neighbours.)
Having earlier observed Birmingham’s infamous sheriff, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, watching the dispersal of a peaceful protest with an expression of disgust, Angel finds herself caught up in the real-life protest that, on Connor’s orders, was broken up with hoses used by members of the city’s fire department. Later, Angel and her family participate in another catalytic episode of the era, the March on Washington.
The air of sobriety these passages lend is lessened by a regrettable subplot involving first love and the Nation of Islam, the only real virtue of which is its illustration of the ideological differences that splintered parts of the black community. Another distraction is Theunissen’s use of patois, the dropped ‘g’s and relaxed enunciation (‘bidness’, ‘Sataday’) of the black Alabaman accent. I imagine Theunissen gave considerable thought as to how to best capture Angel’s voice, but the effect is mildly irritating, and worsened by its superfluity – his storytelling alone suffices to embed the reader in time and place. The special history lessons prompted by a perpetually aggrieved classroom agitator are a much better technique.
From a slingshot start – the author’s didactic approach ensures that by page 10 we are thoroughly versed in the bleakness of the black condition – to an unsettling ending, Theunissen flirts with incoherence but manages to wrench the narrative back under control.
The earnestness and passion underpinning the construction of Angel’s world is evident on every page, and despite its creator’s weakness for the extended metaphor, Through Angel’s Eyes offers an authentic picture of a vital moment in the civil rights movement.
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