Shelf Unawareness: The Silence of Our Friends
As anyone who knows me personally has already heard me say 50,ooo times, I write a few reviews for the fabulous newsletter Shelf Awareness. If you don’t already subscribe to the Readers or Book Trade edition, I suggest you start. It’s a well-written, upbeat look at the book world from a diverse group of talented writers, booksellers, librarians, publishing industry folks, and other good old-fashioned book lovers.
The only difficult part of writing for Shelf is the word limit. The Book Trade edition contains fairly long reviews, but since the Reader edition publishes so many reviews at one time, we have to limit ourselves to 250 words. For readers, I would guess that’s a perfect length. It’s just long enough to squeeze in a bit about the author, a bit about the book’s premise/plot, and a bit about why the book is awesome (because we ONLY review awesome books!) Sometimes I find myself having to choose which information I want to cut because of space limitations, though, and sometimes I want to say things about a book that don’t fit the relaxed-yet-always-professional Shelf vibe. So, rather than reblog my Shelf reviews, I’ve decided to start a feature called Jacki’s Shelf Unawareness! Basically, I’ll link to my Shelf reviews and post any information or impressions I wish I could have squeezed into the review, or anything too personal/tangential to include.
For my first Shelf Unawareness post, I have chosen The Silence of Our Friends. Let’s get this party started!
written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
illustrated by Nate Powell
Published by First Second, $16.99 trade paper, ISBN 9781596436183
What I didn’t say in Shelf Awareness:
When we’re kids in school, we learn about civil rights in a way that makes it hard to understand why the struggle took so long and met with so much opposition. If you were like me, during these lessons you always thought, “Why were white people in the 50s and 60s so evil? Equal rights seem like a no-brainer, and that Martin Luther King, Jr., seems pretty convincing to me. Also, he dressed pretty snazzily.”
Basically, Martin Luther King, Jr., is portrayed as a great American hero leading a righteous yet non-violent army against injustice and prejudice, sort of a latter day Moses/Gandhi hybrid. In comparison, the white opposition come off looking like jerkfaces, and I firmly believe many of them were just that: bigoted jerkfaces who were terrified to admit that people of color were their equals in intelligence and dignity because that would mean giving them an equal share of resources like housing, education, and jobs, leaving less of these resources for the bigoted jerkfaces. But when you learn this stuff as a child, you assume there were two sides to civil rights: for and against. You don’t think about people who never voiced their support because of fear, and if you do, you think they were weenies! Why didn’t everyone just hear the “I have a dream” thing, have epiphanies, weep with shame and hope, change the laws, join hands and sing “Kumbaya”?
I love this book because it looks at the civil rights struggle with grown up eyes. As the cover tagline suggests, when you mixed black and white during this time period, you got shades of gray. If blacks and whites had dinner together, the entire world had an opinion on whether or not they were destroying society. If you fell out with a friend of a different race, you’d hear “I told you so” from your same-race friends and family. Plus, what were your motives for the friendship anyway? Did you really like that other person and want to hang out, or were you hoping to use them to further your cause or visibly express your beliefs? Finally, how could you justify risking your own life to help a political cause when your family depended on you? Since we were still in a male-dominated society at the time, men carried an especially heavy burden. If a man got caught up in a riot and died or went to prison, who would support his family? Oh, and not all the protesters were so non-violent. Those Black Panther guys and gals had more militant ideas about how to affect change. No one told me about them in middle school social studies, I tell you what.
So, while it’s not as “go go American dream” as your classroom materials probably were, The Silence of Our Friends takes a realistic, people-are-always-people slant. I’m no longer sure that I’d stand up for civil rights in the same position. I think I might rather be alive and earning a solid income than have the moral high ground, and also, activism looks time-consuming.
I also appreciated the setting. Houston, Texas may have the dripping humidity of Georgia, but it isn’t the Deep South. Usually when I read a civil rights story, it’s set in Alabama or another Confederate stronghold state. Although I know Houston is a diverse city and has had its share of racial tension, when I think of Civil Rights history, I don’t think of Houston. As I read this story, I thought, “Oh my gosh, the main events in this book really happened, and at a time when my own mother was a small girl, growing up in this very city!”
Finally, I’d like to mention that I love the art of Nate Powell, and that when I saw this book was coming my way, I immediately dropped another review title because I knew anything Nate Powell did would trump it. However, I have no idea where the writers came from (apparently they’re video game and convention folks a.k.a. probably awesome nerds), but they’re fantastic. While I think Nate Powell is a genius, I’ve always had trouble following his plots. I think he shines more brightly while illustrating this story than he did in Swallow Me Whole or Any Empire.
If you’ve never thought graphic novels were worth your time, I suggest you let this one prove you wrong.
***I received this book as an ARC from Shelf Awareness, so anything I say refers to the ARC edition. While I do get paid for my Shelf reviews, my opinions are my own and no one paid me to talk about the awesomeness of this specific book.***