Freshwater Road
Denise Nicholas
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Freshwater Road

Denise Nicholas
432 pages
September 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Actress, now author, Denise Nicholas (Room 222; In the Heat of the Night) delivers a richly atmospheric debut novel in Freshwater Road. The year is 1964. The place is Pineyville, Mississippi, (a town notorious for a lynching several years prior). Celeste Tyree, a privileged black nineteen-year-old University of Michigan sophomore, heads out on a train from Detroit to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement and help in its effort to increase African American voter registration. Once there, the Northern city girl quickly gets to see firsthand the struggles of the local black community when she and friend Matt have a confrontation with the local police.

“ ‘Bet you got them three boys right here in this car, nigger.’ The trooper spat the words out, his accent chopping off the consonants.

An excuse to open the trunk. Sweat poured into Celeste’s eyes. Her hands gripped in tights fists on her lap. She sneaked a look back. The trooper stood to the side of the car. Matt and the other, the one holding him, were hidden by the open trunk. She hoped they wouldn’t take the freedom school books or suitcase. The trunk slammed shut, rocking the car. Then the sound of punches, and a large crack Matt moaned. His non-resistance didn’t stop the blows that followed. Now she didn’t want to turn around, didn’t want to see what they were doing; she set her eyes on a black-barked shade tree marking the turn into a dusty side road. Beyond it stretched rows of crops, peanuts maybe or beans. Neat. No dark people cranked over at the waist between the rows.

‘Nigger. Go back where you came from.’

She’d love to be gone. Far off in the tranquil blue sky, rain clouds began to pile up like scoops of vanilla ice cream. There was the sound of air expelled in a moan. They must have hit him in the stomach. She didn’t know which trooper was talking now. One of the snarled about niggers chasing white women. If they got on that, Matt was doomed and so was she. Better to be anything else, to have horns even, than to be accused of chasing, whistling, winking, or even looking at a white woman.”
The excessive description slows the pace of the novel, but this is a minor quibble as Nicholas excellently creates a mood of fear that keeps the reader enraptured throughout; there are church burnings, beatings and shootings to keep the fear brewing. The emotional drama spans the summer of ‘64 and has Celeste dealing with the secrets of her past and learning that there are no easy answers in life. Fantastic effort for the first-time author.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Bobby Blades, 2005

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