The Outskirts of Hope, Jo Ivester, 2015: She Writes Press, 238 pages
I finished this book a few days ago and on one hand, I loved it. On the other hand, there were parts I found frustrating.
Yet, it was truly engrossing. I read it in one day (it was a raining-hard-with-tornado-warnings-staying-inside-and-reading sort of day).
The frustrations stemmed from passages that didn’t sound authentic. It’s not that I didn’t trust the voice, it’s that I felt that the author worked too hard to show the narrator in the best light. And sometimes, seeing a person in their worst light, feeling their despair and challenges and struggles, is what makes a memoir really shine. Ivester flirts with these feelings but then quickly pulls back.
Here’s a quick run-down of the book: When she was ten years old, Jo Invester’s family moved to a small, poverty-stricken, all-black Mississippi town in the heart of the cotton fields. Her father, who was a doctor, opened a clinic (her father is largely absent from the narrative and one gets the feeling that he was emotionally absent from the family’s lives as well).
It was 1967, smack in the middle of the Civil Rights era, when Jim Crow laws were still enforced (even though the Civil Rights Act had passed in 1964), the Klu Klux Klan periodically swooped down upon towns instilling fear.
Revisiting such a time in history isn’t easy, and the book often caused me to squirm, such as when barefoot high school students tied rages around their feet to protect themselves from in cold. (This in 1967, when most of living up North were sitting cozy in living rooms watching The Monkeys on TV. The differences between such lives was startling. It hit like a slap.)
Ivester wrote much of the book from her mother’s notebooks and from her mother’s point of view, and it’s evident that she worked hard at maintaining her mother’s voice. Yet, at times the mother came across as too good, too committed. It’s almost as if Ivester were unable to distance herself from the role of a daughter to the role of a writer. There were points where I groaned, points that sounded as if the white-savior-teacher-works-hard-to-save-the-poor-black-children.
Yet, Ivester’s mother (Aura Kruger) was truly committed toward this cause. She was a teacher who worked with disadvantaged youth and made a difference in countless lives while also participating in civil rights and gay rights marches. There’s even a documentary about her work teaching Shakespeare in underprivileged schools (Hard Lessons).
While the voice felt forced at time, I doubt that most readers will notice. As someone who reads for voice, however, it nagged at me.
An added point of the book is the chapter headings. Here Ivester includes photos and civil rights era excerpts and it adds an extra layer to the book. The segment from the first chapter is especially chilling:
Any person who shall be guilty of circulating written matter presenting for public acceptance suggestions in favor of social equality between whites and negroes, shall be subject to a fine not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.
–Excerpt from Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws
The Outskirts of Hope is a powerful read that tells a powerful story in a sad and troubling time of history we too often ignore.
I give it 4.5 stars and highly recommend it to all readers.