Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
A friend returned from a trip to Mississippi and bought me this book during her visit there. I looked forward to reading it because it promised an interesting first-hand perspective, that of Anne Moody, an insider in the civil rights movement or, as Sen. Edward Kennedy stated, "A history of our time, seen from the bottom up." I was greatly disappointed because it offered little insight.
The autobiography often read like a catalogue of events: I did this and then I did this and then. . . From my studies and readings, I'm familiar with the facts of what happened; I expected to read about the impact of the events. It would have been interesting to read about how she felt, especially during events like the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in. Only 3 1/2 pages are devoted to this protest, and the focus is on what everyone did, not on her feelings at the time. Being a participant, Moody could have added to the historical record by describing personal reactions, thereby increasing the reader's understanding and arousing his/her empathy. Her account is the equivalent of a newspaper story.
When there is an attempt to describe her feelings, it is not very revealing. She does faint a lot: "Everything around me went black" (387) and "my head began to spin" (402). Other reactions to situations are to move slowly or not at all: "It took me about an hour to change my uniform" (388) and "I sat there for a while with my face buried in my hands" (414).
There are many contradictions in the book. She makes statements like, "if [the white teachers] were at all like the whites I had previously known, I would leave the school immediately" (267). This statement totally ignores previous comments: "I thought of how nice these [white] people were to us . . . [They] treated me like I was their daughter. They were always giving me things and encouraging me . . . " (59). Summarizing her first experiences at working for whites, she says, "The five I had worked for so far had been good to me" (118).
Her treatment of her family is likewise contradictory. With her sister she moves into an apartment and then leaves her to cover the costs: "We had just moved into that apartment, we owed at least one hundred dollars on the furniture, and she couldn't take care of those bills alone" (399). She admits to "hat[ing] to run out on Adline" (399), but she does it nonetheless. Then, when Adline does not attend Anne's graduation, Anne says, "She had lied and said that she would come to the graduation" (419), although Adline had made no such promise when she spoke about attending the ceremony (400).
Publisher's Weekly praised Moody for telling her story "without a trace of see-what-a-martyr-am-I" but I found she could be full of self-pity. She talks about her exhaustion and having to wear the same clothes all day and losing "'about fifteen pounds in a week'" (324). She is upset that no family member attends her college graduation: "'Here I am,' I thought, 'alone, all alone as I have been for a long time'" (415 - 416). She repeatedly bemoans the fact that she can't go home, totally disregarding the fact that she was the one who chose to sever ties with her family: "'These people just ain't no damn good! Everybody in this fuckin' town ain't no good. I'm gonna leave this goddamn town right now'" (210). Incidentally, after this tirade, she complains that her stepfather is "'running around the house cursing all the time'" (214).
Moody can be admired for some candor in the book. Blacks are not viewed as totally innocent; for example, she decries the treatment her mother receives from her second husband's family "for no reason at all than the fact that she was a couple of shades darker than the other members of their family. Yet they were Negroes and we were also Negroes. I just didn't see Negroes hating each other so much" (59). Several times she mentions her frustration with the apathy of the people she is trying to register for the vote. She is present for Martin Luther King's speech in Washington, but she dismisses it: "I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had 'dreamers' instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less to dream" (335).
There is no doubt that Blacks suffered under the Jim Crow laws, but some of Moody's descriptions seem over-the-top. The arrest of protesters in Jackson and the presence of police dogs, though they "were not used" (298), prompt her to compare the situation to Nazi Germany. Policemen are compared to Nazi soldiers (305) and a fairgrounds detention centre is called a "concentration camp" (360).
The writing style is tedious to say the least. The repeated use of short, simple sentences becomes very monotonous: "I was there from the very beginning. Jackie Robinson was asked to serve as moderator. This was the first time I had seen him in person. . . . Jackie was a good moderator, I thought. He kept smiling and joking. People felt relaxed and proud" (285). Where did Publisher's Weekly find "good writing"?!
Moody has a story worthy of telling, but it could have been more effectively told. As is, it is a tedious read which details mundane events and omits the personal emotions that would have made the book a very compelling read.