book review: Fire from the Rock
author: Sharon Draper
publisher: Speak; 2008
main character: Sylvia Patterson
“Great fiction comes from powerful realities.” Thus states Sharon Draper as she describes her own past that was woven into Fire from the rock. Draper was a child in 1957, the year this story takes place. One of her best friends at that time was a little Jewish girl and she watched the events in Little Rock on her fuzzy black and white television. Me, I wasn’t born until October of that year.
Sylvia is a smart young lady who works hard in high school, listens to her parents and is experiencing young love. Like everyone in her school, she’s aware of the plans to integrate the white high school next year. She knows that some of the white city leaders will interview prospective Black students to select those they feel are most appropriate. The Whites on the committee are known for their racist agendas. They want Blacks who work hard in school, can control their temper (because they will be provoked) and who can accept the limitations that will be placed upon them (such as not being allowed to attend school events). Sylvia’s brother, Gary, wants to be among those chosen. Their family is well respected and Gary is also quite responsible. He feels that the nation is at the brink of change and for him, it can’t change fast enough. He’s a hot head and will not be selected to participate in desegregating the schools. But, Sylvia is.
When we think of this time and the images we’ve seen, we assume that everyone was ready and willing to march in the streets, sit at the counters and do everything they could to change their world. But, Draper gives us a much more real picture which included those who wanted to see a change, but were scared of becoming involved in the process of change, and rightfully so. They’d seen the hangings, faced the retributions and felt these things were all but impossible to fight. Some in the story support Sylvia and hope she’ll decide to attend the all white school while others think she is being a bit to uppity. These feelings give Sylvia a small taste of what she’ll face in the new school.
Should she leave? Should she give up senior year with her boyfriend? There, she won’t be a cheerleader or go to her own prom but she’ll have the finest of facilities and participate in something bigger than herself. Her father is afraid for her; he’s seen his own father hanged. Yet, he and her mother are willing to let Sylvia make her own decision. I like that this young lady was empowered to make such an important decision on her own, and we were taken on the journey that formulated her decision.
Like Draper, Sylvia also had a Jewish friend, Rachel Zucker. The Zuckers owned the nearby grocery store and had a very good relationship with the Pattersons, but not with the Whites in the town. The Zuckers, like many Jews in the south were discriminated against in the same way Blacks were and the same way Latinos and Asians were in the west.
Draper provides a sobering dose of history. Its message isn’t overpowering but it is svibrant and authentic. She wrote this hoping that students will see how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. She suggests they simply look at the racial dynamics of their own high school cafeteria. Sylvia is a fictional character, not based on any of the Little Rock Nine.
The author’s website includes a study guide.
disclaimer: I own this book.
themes: desegregation; resilience; civil rights