Margaret McMullan returns to Mississippi and its history in the gripping Sources of Light. After her father’s war-hero death in Vietnam, Samantha Thomas and her mother relocate to Jackson, Mississippi, near her father’s hometown. While her mother teaches art history at the local college, Sam begins her freshman year of high school in 1962, simply wanting to fit in like the popular Mary Alice, eagerly awaiting her first dance with Mary Alice’s older brother and hoping to fill out her new bra.
After her mom’s friend Perry gives her a camera and ongoing photography lessons, Sam begins to notice and document the racial tensions in Jackson: the violence that spurs from a lunch counter sit in and the deterioration of her community as energy is spent on the “black problem” rather than schools, houses and roads. The town deems Sam, her mother and Perry “agitators” when they take an interest in racial equality, including registering blacks to vote.
When Sam’s family is the target of threats and vandalism from a white supremacist group, they must decide whether to continue helping local African Americans. Adding to the dilemma is Sam’s desire to keep her first boyfriend, even though he may be involved in the violence. A regular girl with bold ideas, Sam realizes that like her father, she is caught in the crossfire of war—and she wonders if she will come out a hero, too. Her keen observations on both adolescence and the racial divide will teach readers about the Civil Rights Movement and growing up in the early 1960s.
Using photography as a metaphor, McMullan shows how Sam looks for the sources of light and good amidst the hatred that surrounds her. Inserting elements of her own childhood and even alluding to her previous Reconstruction novel When I Crossed No-Bob, she seamlessly blends fact and fiction and portrays this turbulent time in American history with candor and grace.
Angela Leeper is a librarian at the University of Richmond.