Friday, January 15, 2016

The Empty Schoolhouse by Natalie Savage Carlson

I  haven't written about any chapter books yet, so in honor of Martin Luther King Day, here is a good one. 

This book is about desegregating parish schools in Louisiana, from a black family's perspective. Emma Royall, at 14 is the oldest child in the family and has quit school. Her younger sister Lullah adores school and is terribly excited about leaving the colored school and going to the parish school with her white best friend, Oralee. Little Jobe is the youngest and isn't in school but highly anticipating it. Plus he is an energetic little imp, which delighted my kids. 

I love this picture of the two girls walking. 

The book opens with a picnic with Oralee and all is (mostly) peace and happiness. 

The community is built around the church and everyone seems to have a respect of sorts for the Royall family. But one family feels strongly about blacks not entering their school, so calls in some outside toughs to come and intimidate the black kids on their first day of school. When the name calling doesn't deter the new black students, they start on harsher things. Throwing rocks in windows at night and threatening white men's jobs if they continue to let their kids go to school with blacks.

(I love the little pictures by the artist best. But then, I just like little pictures.) 

Eventually, everyone pulls their kids out of the school. Lullah goes back to her old colored school. Suddenly, Oralee has a new best friend, a white girl. The new best friend is horrid and tries to make it hard for Lullah to play with them. Oralee just goes along, fascinated by her new friend. This is typical child behavior, but against the backdrop of segregation, it feels much harsher. This picture of Lullah watching them play from across the street because she is not allowed to go into the white's only playground is particularly heartbreaking. 

Segregation was so horrid.

After another incidence of Oralee being carelessly rude, Lullah is heartbroken, but determines to go back to the empty Parish school. The nuns had continued to open the school and expect students every day. 

As Lullah returns to the school as the only student, the threats kick up again. Eventually things come to a head and the result makes the white families, who had always like the Royall family, realize how ridiculous it was to let outsiders stir everyone up. 

In some ways, this book is a somewhat gentle handling of the segregation/desegregation issue. It has violence and hatred and horribleness, but most of the whites are basically decent people, effectively threatened into submission by nasty people. One family moves away at the end of the book, but that is no great loss to the neighborhood. 

Yet, the fear that decent white people had is one of biggest reasons segregation was allowed to drag on so long. History is full of horrible events and situations where seemingly decent people act terrible or allow others to be horrid unchecked. If more parents had told the outside agitators to go jump in the lake, the whole situation could have been avoided. 

The need for doing what is right even if no one else is very effectively illustrated in this book. 


  1. Yeah, there's something about segregation/desegregation that really gets me too. And of course now I work in an area where people actually remember it happening and also remember the segregation in the community at large. Colored/white drinking fountains...certain areas in the movie theater (pronounced thee-a-ter with a long a, by the way!) could be sat in by the blacks and then by the whites, etc. etc. We've actually come a LONG ways since the 1970s when our town desegregated, thank goodness. Carol sees with her nursing that the old blacks are so so so diffident to her. A shadow of an earlier time for sure.

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  3. Living in a place where it never was an issue, it is weird to think of people (not even ancient people!) being able to remember segregation. Such a wicked thing, to convince an entire people that they weren't as good as anyone else.