Hard Shell Word Factory
Trade paperback: 0-7599-4807-0
The early 1960s: the uneasy days of racial change in America, the days of the birth of racial equality. The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree is a love story and a history lesson on the 1963 racial changes that took place in Beulah, Alabama, rolled into one.
Gaynell McGowen, home from the University of Alabama for the summer, shares her view of these changes in the summer of 1963. Thing are escalating in Beulah, the town she grew up in. The Negroes are finally getting the right to vote and the schools are to be integrated come September. There are those in town that would fight integration, no matter what the cost. They even threaten to open their own private school to keep their white children from being schooled along side a Negro child. As Gaynell's mother is a teacher and her father is on the school board, the whole situation seems to be a part of their day-to-day family life. Gaynell and her dear departed Grannie Mac seemed to be the only two in the town that thought Negroes were being mistreated.
Instead of taking an "F" in one of her classes, Gaynell promises to do a paper for her college professor on the topic of "The Role of Douglass College for Negroes in Bullitt County, Past, Present, and Future." In order to do this, Gaynell goes straight to Douglass College. It is there that she meets Willis Jones.
Willis Jones is from the south side of Chicago. After getting into some trouble, barely dodging a bullet, and showing a gift for caring for animals, his mother sends him to Douglass College to become a vet. He works hard, living with his uncle who happens to be the Negro professor that Gaynell needs to work with to do her paper. The two strike up a friendship, but it is soon vetoed by his uncle, as well as her mother.
The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree follows the historical events of the first integrated school in Beulah. It also documents the growing inter-racial friendship, and eventual love affair of two young people, and the damage suffered by both families when the lovers are found out.
Ms. Parrish has documented an important turning point in our nation's history, a time that should always be remembered. I would not recommend this book to those younger than perhaps sixteen, due to the sexual encounters, although they are not extremely graphic. There is also some violence described that is true to the era but may be disturbing to younger readers. All in all, The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree is very well written, extremely well researched, and a thought-provoking read.
Reviewed By MargeAnna Conrad
© April 2006