Readers of Dennis McFarland's previous novels have marveled at his perceptive handling of varied facets of the human experience, including alcoholism, sexual abuse, aging, death and suicide. His memorable characters confront life's pitfalls, usually looking back at their formative years imbued with the wisdom of adulthood. McFarland's fifth novel, Prince Edward, varies from that formula in that the protagonist, Ben Rome, is not an adult but a 10-year-old boy struggling to navigate the complicated waters of the 1959 desegregation crisis in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Ben's small town confronts the Supreme Court mandate to integrate its public schools by deciding instead to close them, enroll all its white children in private schools, and leave the blacks to fend for themselves.
The author adroitly illuminates all sides of the issue through the characters surrounding Ben, each of whom contributes to his coming of age over the long summer. His father, who is abusive and drunk much of the time, openly supports the ongoing segregation efforts, while his ineffectual mother seems to ignore the issue. His older brother professes to sympathize with the town's blacks, but his actions say otherwise. Ben thinks his sister supports the town's black families, including that of Ben's best friend Burghardt, but she is so absorbed in her own problems that she has little time to discuss civil rights. Black sentiments are embodied by Burghardt and his grandmother, Granny Mays, who live on Ben's grandfather's farm; Granny will do anything it takes to see that her grandson gets an education.
McFarland masterfully blends his fictional characters into the real story of how one county actually kept its public schools closed for five years, depriving those blacks who couldn't relocate of any formal education. Surrounded by a long-standing tradition of prejudice, and without the moral guidepost of an Atticus Finch, Ben gradually begins to understand the wrongs committed in the name of "states' rights and civic responsibility," which lie at the heart of this sensitive and compelling novel.