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"Four Spirits" By Sena Jeter Naslund

Saga of civil rights movement spins tales of loss

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Ellen S. Wilson

The city of Birmingham, Ala., erected a statue of the Roman god Vulcan in 1904 to "make a statement to the world."


"Four Spirits"

By Sena Jeter Naslund
William Morrow ($26.95)


It is a questionable statement. Vulcan was blacksmith for the gods, crippled when his father, Jupiter, threw him to earth. Vulcan was wed to Venus, who cheated on him perpetually, and was listed last in the pantheon. The statue is referred to again and again in Sena Jeter Naslund's novel. It's an icon for a troubled city that came to a boil during the 1960s.

Naslund is a prize-winning fiction writer whose last novel was "Ahab's Wife, or The Star Gazer."

A native of Birmingham, she witnessed the violence of the civil rights movement's early days, from the police dogs and water cannons that broke up a peaceful protest in Kelly Ingram Park to the murder of four children in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, an act that galvanized the movement and inflicted wounds on a community that still bleed 40 years later.

While there are many voices who tell this story, it opens and closes with Stella Silver, a white college student in May 1963. She stands at the feet of the statue of Vulcan and sees a citywide civil rights demonstration.

While sympathetic to the cause, Stella is too afraid to participate. Part of this story is of her growing involvement not only in race wars but also, to a smaller degree, in gender and class wars.

Given an understanding of loss at 5 when her parents and two brothers are killed in a car accident, Stella is a cautious survivor.

But not all the characters who populate this story are survivors. Christine, a single mother of three, stands up for her right to sit at a lunch counter and is shot point blank by a white policeman.

Christine teaches GED classes at historically black Miles College and meets Stella and her friend Cat Cartwright when they break the color barrier and take volunteer teaching jobs. Cat, who is confined to a wheelchair, is the only white person to lose her life at the violent lunch counter sit-in, along with another Miles teacher and one student.

Another victim in this book is Ku Klux Klan member Ryder Jones, a character presented with no sympathy but brought to life by a piercing venom and scorn. Ryder abuses his wife, Lee, one too many times.

She uses the bomb-making skills he taught her (he's too clumsy to make the bombs) to blow up their house while he is sleeping.

Naslund seems to want to tell this story from as many different points of view as she can imagine. Lee, almost as racist as her husband, is no heroine, but she does shrink from the more extreme acts of violence -- until she uses violence to liberate herself.

While the title refers to the four girls killed at the Baptist church, whose spirits bless the movement and its supporters, there are other lost quartets: Stella's family and the four who died at the sit-in, whose deaths provide inspiration as well as provoke anger.

The struggle for civil rights as depicted here is fueled by religion, an observation that keeps Stella aware of her own distance from the struggle.

For readers who know the hymns invoked, the story has a soundtrack: "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," when President Kennedy is assassinated; "We Shall Overcome," when Miles College is threatened by bombs; even a rage-filled "Hallelujah Chorus" at the funeral for those killed at the sit-in.

The god Vulcan was peace-loving, a victim who created golden robots to assist him in his smithy. Maybe the blond Stella can be one of those assistants. We last see Stella planning to devote her energies to black voter registration. She is ensnared in a love affair that may or may not last. She is still at risk and still surviving.

It is not a happy ending -- the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is still to come.

This is a brave and multifaceted book, propelled by a mission, and, despite the grimness, it is a page-turner.

Ellen S. Wilson is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh.

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