By Alena Rivers
Rose Lee Carter is thirteen years old and learning to navigate the uncertainties of her daily life. Rose Lee is African American and lives in a small town in Mississippi where Jim Crow laws rule. Her story takes place in 1955 over the weeks surrounding the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen year-old African American boy brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Told in first-person narration, each chapter represents a day of Rose Lee’s observations of her family and her community. Rose Lee lives with her grandparents, Papa and Ma Pearl, her 12 year-old brother, Fred Lee and their 15 year-old cousin, Queen. Although she lives with her grandparents, brother and cousin, Rose Lee rarely sees her mother, who left after marrying into a new family.
Along with her mother’s absence, Rose Lee must contend with the lack of nurturing care from grandmother, Ma Pearl, who treats Rose Lee with contempt and indignation. Her situation is further troubled by the constant verbal berating she receives from cousin Queen who receives extreme special treatment from Ma Pearl, likely because of her very light skin color. Ma Pearl and Queen make no secret of their contempt for Rose Lee’s midnight black skin color as they seemingly regard Rose Lee with a Cinderella-like status in their family.
In the end, Rose Lee must make a tough decision to either stay in Mississippi or go north with her aunt and her aunt’s fiancé who want to give Rose Lee the opportunity to find another life for herself. Rose Lee makes her decision in the final page of the story, however, the decision seemed abrupt and the story could have benefitted from more attention to Rose Lee’s rationale for her choice. Rose Lee’s life is rife with influences that negatively impact her and readers may not easily make a connection to the positive influences that affect her final decision to stay in Mississippi. Still, the story lends a unique perspective on the impact of a horrific event on a family and their relationship to a pivotal moment in civil rights history.