"My parents were foot soldiers in President Johnson's War on Poverty." So begins The Outskirts of Hope: A Memoir of the Deep South by Jo Ivester. She continues:
One of the president's first actions after announcing his new program in 1964 as to send his lieutenants in search of the poorest spot in the country. Expecting to find it in Appalachia, they were surprised to discover it instead in the cotton fields of Mississippi.
Three years later, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Ivester's pediatrician father makes a unilateral decision to move his family from a Boston suburb to Mound Bayou, an all-black town in the heart of the Mississippi delta, where he opens a clinic. Ivester is the only white student at her junior high school. Mound Bayou is considered a safe place despite the violence during the Civil Rights movement. Founded in 1887 by ex-slaves of Joe Davis, it is an all-black town with its own town government and school system. The Ku Klux Klan isn't as much of a concern as elsewhere, so there isn't much fear that a clinic in an all-black town will suffer bombings or arson attacks.
And so in August 1967 Leon and Aura Kruger move their family to the Deep South.
Although the clinic provides needed medical care to the people of the area, it is her mother who comes to have the most impact on the town.
Ivester tells the story of the family's two years in Mound Bayou largely based on her mother's diary, but also includes reconstructions of some of her own diary entries. This provides the reader with two perspectives, that of Aura, a 44-year-old mother of four, who must uproot her family, leaving behind everything she'd ever known, including a daughter (a college freshman); and that of a 10-year-old adventurous tomboy.
Aura struggles with the fact that she was not consulted about the move, worries that she is failing her children by depriving them of the educational opportunities available in their suburban schools, and suffers from long hours of boredom when the rest of the family is off at work or school. She confesses to Leon how useless she feels, and he suggests she look into teaching, something she feels unqualified for. A few days later the Superintendent of Schools asks her to teach English at the high school and convinces her to give it a try. Her impact on the students and the community is profound as she introduces them to their own literature and history and empowers them.
Ivester's memoir is a powerful story of the effect one family has on a community and fills in another piece of the history of the civil rights movement. I was captivated by her account of the triumphs as well as the personal costs of confronting racism. Once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down until I turned the last page. She reminds me that the courage of just a few can make a difference even in situations that seem overwhelming and challenges me to take what may seem to be just one small step. I highly recommend this book.
Jo Ivester spent two years of her childhood living in a trailer in Mound Bayou, where she was the only white student at her junior high. She finished high school in Florida before attending Reed, MIT, and Stanford in preparation for a career in transportation and manufacturing. Following the birth of her fourth child, she became a teacher. She and her husband teach each January at MIT and travel extensively, splitting their time between Texas, Colorado, and Singapore. Visit her website.
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