It's always exciting when the very first book you read in the New Year is an instant favorite magnificent work you will be pushing at everyone you see for the foreseeable future. Midnight Without a Moon, the debut novel by Linda Williams Jackson, is such a book for me. Prepare to hear about this book for months to come.
It is summer of 1955 in Mississippi and Rosa Lee Carter lives with her grandparents, brother, and cousin on a wealthy white man's cotton plantation. Her best friend is the preacher's son. Her life's goal is to finish school and find a way out of Mississippi. As the summer heat rises, Rose spends her time working in the cotton fields and quietly trying to learn all she can about the NAACP. But her grandmother insists they are group who are just going to cause trouble for good people. When a neighbor is shot after registering to vote and tensions continue to rise across the state and Rose's small community, she must decide what she believes, how much she is willing to risk to stand up for that, and whether it is better to stand and fight or find a way out.
Rose's voice and character are absolute perfection. It works well for the time period while also being accessible and relatable for today's readers. Her life revolves around her closest relationships and is not entirely her own. She is a smart girl who desperately wants to finish school and become more, but her grandparents decide whether or not she goes to school. She works hard in the cotton fields and helping her grandmother while her older cousin gets to lounge around a good amount of the time. Relationship and family dynamics are the core of this book. Rose's mother had her and her brother young and out of wedlock. She married someone later and left her children with her parents. This is also the case for Rose's cousin. It makes for fraught family dynamics and the relationships are complicated by what her grandparents believe and the new ideas of beating down Jim Crow that are filtering in from so many of their relatives moving north and returning for visits. I can not even begin to explain in a short review how intricately Jackson pulls all of these together, layers them, and shows their complex importance simply by breathing life into the characters and making them real. I loved and felt so much for Rose, found her relationship with Hallelujah (her best friend) endearing, and adored her grandfather. Her grandmother filled me with rage, while at the same time that I found myself reluctantly understanding and empathizing with her. The complexities of all these people and their relationships make the story rich. It's a true picture of family and community that is not always comfortable, but shows the ties that bind us even when we don't necessarily like a person.
This story of Rose's self realization and her family's facing new challenges and questions is set against the summer of Mississippi in 1955 and the murder of Emmet Till and the trial of his murderers. This is kept in the distance though, and his is not the first murder discussed in the book. The book opens with the shooting of a man Rose knows because he registers to vote. The historical context of the book is important and the way the story is told even more so. This is a story about a black family living in a black community. It in no way shies away from or sugar coats what life was like in this time or place. In many aspects Rose's family life looks the same way it would have a hundred years before under slavery. Jackson does not attempt to make the reader comfortable with it in any way. The language she uses and the way people talk may make many squirm, but it makes the book that much richer and authentic. I think it is important to note that this book coming out this year, as the Voting Rights Act is being gutted, is a much needed reminder of exactly what things were like, why we need to keep fighting, and for a significant portion of the population the 1950s were Hell on earth and not a time we want to revisit.
The sentence level writing in the book is excellent as well. Jackson has a true way with words. She can write beautiful poetic imagery and also say much with one simple sentence. Few authors are able to find a balance between the two and wield them well together. Jackson can. The book is also infused with a sly, tongue-in-cheek humor that I love. This comes from Rose herself, who is quite a smart mouth in her own head even if she doesn't let it out much, and from others as well. There are some truly great pithy one liners.
This is pretty much a perfect book in every way: character, theme, setting, plot. It's being marketed as MG and I think it is a must have for every middle school library and classroom. I believe it will also have crossover YA appeal and that both the 2018 Newbery and Printz committees better be discussing it.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, HMH Books for Young Readers, via Edelweiss. Midnight Without a Moon is on sale now, and you should buy it immediately.
The author is generously offering an ARC of the sequel to Midnight Without A Moon. (YES! There will be a sequel. Midnight Without a Moon stands on its own just fine, but I'm so excited we will have another book with Rose's voice and her community.) To enter comment below. Be sure to add an email address or Twitter handle where you can be reached. Deadline is Wednesday, January 11 at 8:00 PM EST. Good luck!