Five Smooth Stones, a 1966 book by Ann Fairbairn, is another book I picked up on the Not Wanted table at our local regatta. The book felt like a historical novel of a far-away time - and yet I was in university at the time of its publication (funny how that's happening more often these days).
The book traces the life of David Champlin, a black man born poor in New Orleans through his education in the North (liberal arts college followed by Harvard Law) and his ultimate involvement in the civil rights movement.
It was a time when Coloured and Negro were both acceptable descriptors. Older black people were focused on surviving in the divided Southern society, teaching their children to avoid any possibility of confrontation, to keep their eyes downcast around whites. Blacks were barred from many public buildings, parks, pools, schools; more importantly they were blocked from registering to vote. Blacks and whites are mutually distrustful.
Yet, David becomes the protege of both black and white people, and falls in love with a white girl. The love story is interwoven throughout the novel. Their relationship is unthinkable in the south and more importantly in David's mind, even though he meets couples of mixed race in the North.
The reality of the book felt so distant from our situation today. It's not that everything is smooth and easy for blacks today, but you'd be hard pressed to find people to argue that blacks should be denied access to the fruits of civil society as they were back then in the South.
The book also made me wonder if we sometimes misjudge the significance of events in our own time. In Five Smooth Stones, there are many mentions of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist assassinated in 1963, but only a glancing mention of the contemporaneous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King. If this book was your sole source of information about the civil rights movement, you would never guess how deeply the "I have a dream" speech is engrained in our psyche, nor that the Americans have named a holiday after Martin Luther King Jr.
One other thing that really struck me, apart from the inordinate amount of smoking and drinking (liquor and instant coffee) that everyone indulged in. It was that a book evangelizing civil rights and equality could have such a medieval attitude toward homosexuality. Champin is almost driven out of the liberal arts college he attends through the evil machinations of a racist dean. And how does he attack Champlin? With an accusation that he is gay. Being gay was worse than being black. And when the dean is ousted from the college, it is because he himself is proved to be gay. You can fight for human rights for one category of humans, and yet not generalize such rights to all humans.
I didn't consider this a great book. Far too often, I could guess where the plot was leading. The good characters were just a little bit too good, and the bad characters were really bad. The latter part became a bit sermonistic and many of the descriptions of the activist events were rather convoluted and hard to understand. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by its depiction of that era and it kept me turning the pages for over 900 pages, so I guess it couldn't have been that bad.