Many people are familiar with the 1957 Central High Crisis—when nine African-American students integrated the Little Rock public high school in the face of segregationist threats and protests—but less famous is the “lost year,” which happened the year after the Crisis. In 1958, the Arkansas governor closed the Little Rock public high schools in order to prevent integration, leaving students and teachers in limbo and the city divided. Kristin Levine’s novel The Lions of Little Rock is about an unlikely friendship that develops during this tumultuous period of history.
In the story, the painfully shy 12-year-old Marlee becomes friends with Liz, an outgoing new girl at her middle school. Liz helps Marlee gain the confidence to give a speech in class, but on the day of the presentation, Marlee learns that Liz has withdrawn from school. Turns out Liz is actually African American, and she was passing as white. After this discovery, Marlee must first decide whether she wishes to remain in contact with Liz—then the two courageous girls face violence and the disapproval of their families as they fight for their friendship.
BookPage spoke with author Levine about her sensitive and compelling historical novel.
During your research about the “lost year,” what surprised you the most?
I actually didn’t start out to write about the “lost year.” I was planning to write a book set during 1957-58 when the Little Rock Nine were integrating Central High School. But when I went to Little Rock to do some interviews, everyone I talked to had much more to say about 1958-59, the year when the schools were closed.
I had never heard about schools being closed to prevent integration. It seemed like such a drastic thing to do—cutting off your nose to spite your face. But as I did more research, I realized this had happened in other places as well, including in my home state of Virginia.
And in some ways, more people were affected by the events of 1958-59. Nearly everyone had a sibling, friend or neighbor who was affected by the four public high schools being closed. Also, the events of the Little Rock Nine have already been written about by those who were there. I eventually decided I could add more to the discussion by writing about the “lost year.”
Did you come across evidence of black children passing as white in Little Rock public schools of this era?
My uncle attended Little Rock public schools, including Central High School, a few years before the Little Rock Nine. While I was interviewing him for The Lions of Little Rock, he mentioned that when he was a student at West Side Junior High, there was a boy who was “there one day and gone the next.” The rumor was that the boy had been black.
While I have no way of knowing if that boy had indeed been “passing,” my uncle and his friends at school believed that he was. I needed a way for my main characters to get to know each other. With a bit of poetic license, passing became a way for my main characters to meet and become friends.
Is the friendship between Marlee and Liz based on a real relationship? Do you believe close interracial friendships like theirs existed in Little Rock of the 1950s?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, I was inspired by the friendship Melba Pattillo Beals (one of the Little Rock Nine) describes in her book, Warriors Don’t Cry. She talks about becoming close to a white boy who pretended to torment her with the others at school, but actually tried to protect her. She often talked to him on the phone at night, and he would warn her about harassment that was being planned for the next day at school. I was especially struck by the episode she describes of driving with him to visit his beloved black nanny. The woman had been dismissed from her position with his family once she became too old and sick to work for them, and the boy and Ms. Beals tried to get her medical care.
On the other hand, I think a friendship of the kind I describe in my book would have been quite unlikely at this time. As I did research, I realized there was very little contact between blacks and whites in Little Rock in the 1950s. My first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, was set in a small town in Alabama in 1917, and it was surprising to me that there was actually much more contact between blacks and whites in that place and time.
In the end, I guess I’m an optimist. Based on Melba Pattillo Beals’ recollections, I like to imagine that a friendship like Marlee and Liz’s could have happened, even if it wasn’t very likely.
How do you think you would have reacted to the integration had you been a student at Central in 1957?
I believe I would have been supportive of it. Even as a child, I was very interested in issues of moral fairness and doing what was right. My parents have always been interested in social justice as well, and I guess that rubbed off on me.
But it is so hard to say what you would have done until you’ve lived through something like that. I know I would have started out being friendly, but once the threats or name-calling started, would I have continued to be friendly? Or would I have become silent like so many others? I’m not sure, but I hope I would have continued to speak up.
For this book, you had to research historical events as well as identify day-to-day details from ‘50s-era Little Rock. How did you know when you had done sufficient research and could go on to writing your narrative?
I don’t think I was ever quite sure I’d “done enough” research. After a while, I decided I had to just start writing to see if the story would work. If I came to a section where I needed more details, Google made it simple to look up popular “candy flavors” or “fast-food restaurants.” But I continued to do research as I was writing, up until the very end, using books and films, and emailing contacts in Little Rock when necessary. (My favorite comment was from a friend in Little Rock telling me that the elephant’s name was really Ruth, not Bessie as I had imagined. I made that change with the final edits.)
In the end, I guess I’m an optimist. I like to imagine that a friendship like Marlee and Liz’s could have happened, even if it wasn’t very likely.
Between your book and David Margolick’s Elizabeth and Hazel, it seems the Central High Crisis and its aftermath are receiving quite a lot of attention in the public eye. Why do you think Little Rock’s chapter in Civil Rights history remains interesting to writers?
Because school integration is an ongoing issue. In some way, I feel like we’ve recently taken some steps backwards. The schools I attended as I child that were paired to increase their diversity have been “un-paired.” More attention is being given to test scores than promoting equality.
In fact, a few weeks ago I was talking to a group of fifth and sixth graders about The Lions of Little Rock, and explaining how I believe we are still dealing with many of these issues. They immediately understood what I was talking about. “Oh yeah,” one boy said, “Everyone calls [school name] the white school!” An interesting discussion followed about the fact that, although we live in a diverse area, our local schools do not always reflect that diversity.
Why that happens— and what we can do about it—is something I hope my book, and others like it, will inspire people to think about.
Both of your novels frankly address racism and unlikely friendships. Even in 2012, these are not easy topics to write about or discuss. What motivates you to tell your stories?
As a child, I had a wonderful friendship with a boy who was unlike me in many ways. After third grade, he was held back for a year, while I went on to another school, and though we continued to live in the same town, we grew apart. I’ve always remembered that friendship fondly, even though I was teased a lot because of it.
As a white woman, for a long time I felt like I wasn’t qualified to write about race. But then I realized that wasn’t true. Racism isn’t a black issue, or a Hispanic or Asian issue, it’s an issue for anyone who cares about fairness and equality. These are values I hold very dear, which is why I write about them.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, however. At times, I worry I will say something stupid or unintentionally offensive. In the end, however, I decided that that was a risk I needed to take because being silent just wasn’t enough.
What is your next project?
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to do next. I’ve always wanted to write sci-fi or fantasy, which at first seems like a big leap, but I guess it’s really not. In historical fiction, you’re trying to create a time and place, just like you’re creating a different world in sci-fi or fantasy.
But of course I also really enjoy historical fiction. And now that I’ve based one book on my grandfather (The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had) and one book very loosely on my mother [a Little Rock native], my father is clamoring that it’s HIS turn for a book. So there may be a book about a paperboy in Chicago in my future.