I don’t think I’d ever read a book about the 1965 riots in Watts, California, until I read Brenda Woods’ beautifully written book, “When Winter Robeson Came.” There is much that is lovely about the verse in this story: the lyrical language, the way Woods compares feelings to tempos in music, the clever way she compares the discrimination in Mississippi to that in California, and how she manages to make us feel the gamut of emotions that the characters display from fear to joy.
The story is in first person and narrated by Miss Eden Louise Coal, almost thirteen years old. She and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was ten, and she still misses Indianola, Mississippi, where she was born and where:
“…trios of songbirds serenaded me in the morning
and lightning bugs added sparkle to summertime nights.”
Eden had a music teacher there who encouraged her to dream big and to listen to the music in nature and everywhere. Her piano teacher in LA diminishes Eden’s aspirations by admonishing that girls don’t compose music. She remembers her first music teacher talking about Negro women composers like Margaret Bonds and Julia Perry, “writers of spirituals, sonatas, symphonies, even operas.” Eden has big dreams, and her life in Los Angeles seems idyllic when her cousin, Winter, comes for a two-week visit from Mississippi. Ostensibly, he’s there to see his relatives and enjoy California, but he has a secret mission.
As he explains to Eden, ten years previously, his father disappeared. He had gone to Los Angeles to find work and was supposed to send for Winter and his mother. They received a letter that he had gotten a job at the docks, and then they never heard from him again. No one knew what had happened to him, and Winter’s mother became bitter and disillusioned. Winter was just sad, and he was determined to find out what had happened. While he and Eden are playing detective and visiting the area where his father lived all those years ago, we see Los Angeles and Mississippi from their points of view.
We learn that while Los Angeles didn’t have Jim Crow laws, there were tacit “understandings” instead. There were neighborhoods where Blacks couldn’t buy homes. Even in Eden’s neighborhood, which had cute houses and better schools than the traditional Black neighborhoods like Watts, whites were moving out. Kids will read about the term “white flight.” Mr. Fitzpatrick is the last white person living on their block. Eden shares that “When we first moved here, there were five white families.” And her mama says that after that, the FOR SALE signs went up and off flew the white families. Eden narrates, “I picture white birds flying away and tell him, “It’s called white flight…Soon as Negroes come, most white folks go.” And Winter comments that, “Y’all still got a little Jim Crow here too, huh?”
This isn’t an action books or a book that’s all about racism. It is, instead, a beautiful peek into a history that isn’t always as beautiful as we suppose it is. While I heard about the Watts riots, of course, and I have family living in Los Angeles, I never really thought about the history of the city. This book is eye-opening in that respect. When Eden’s friend moves to a better neighborhood, Baldwin Hills, it’s described by a neighbor as “the Negro Beverly Hills.” To Winter, though, it’s still better than Mississippi, as he comments when they ride the city bus to Watts, where his father lived a decade before, “I know the law says Jim Crow is supposed to be over and all, but back home, so as not to cause trouble, most of us, including me, still sit in the back.” He chooses to sit right in front on this bus.
Because it’s written in verse, it’s a quick read. It would be a wonderful choice to use as a read aloud in a fourth or fifth grade classroom. In the hands of the right teacher, the figurative language and the history could provide some very thoughtful discussion about our history, prejudice, and the struggle for equality. Obviously and truly heartbreakingly, in some places such discussion would be prohibited by laws that only serve to prove that no matter how much time has passed, not enough has changed. Until all public schools provide the same quality education no matter what neighborhood a child lives in, until teachers are encouraged to challenge children to think for themselves rather than accept what others tell them, until every person’s right to vote is considered sacred, we still have a lot to do. And in some very important ways, nothing has changed since the setting of this story in 1965. And that’s an important discussion.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Nancy Paulsen Books, the publisher, for review purposes.