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Water Tossing Boulders, by Adrienne Berard.

May 29, 2016

Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South, by Adrienne Berard.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

2 stars

The unusual story of a Chinese family’s 1924 legal challenge to a Mississippi grade school that refused to allow their daughters to attend, told with additional, but marginally relevant information.

The presence of Chinese migrants in Mississippi after the Civil War is an interesting sidelight in U.S. history.  That a Chinese couple in Mississippi actually challenged the refusal of a small local school to admit their daughters is even more fascinating.  Yet that is the story at the core of Water Tossing Boulders.  Author Adrienne Berard discovered this incident accidentally while looking for her own mother’s more conventionally white family history.  She went on to interview those with any connection to the story and to research every imaginable aspect of the Chinese couple, immigration laws, Mississippi politicians, and even the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River.  While her various findings are interesting and largely accurate, they often seem irrelevant.  They pull away from the people at the center of the book and result in a strangely ununified account.  Although Berard states forcefully that everything she relates is factual, she frequently writes in detailed, impressionistic prose that claims to know everything, down to the smell of the honeysuckle.  As an historian myself, I found it hard to believe that the nebulous feelings she attributes to her characters would ever have left documented evidence.

Adrienne Berard is a freelance journalist and a graduate of Smith College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.   Her articles appear on FOX NEWS.  On her website she claims that  “[h]er work focuses on reclaiming America’s forgotten voices, the silenced, the offbeat, the erased.”  I applaud her goal, in general and in this book, but writing meaningfully requires more than good intentions or ideas. It is not enough to cut and paste a variety of factual snippets.  Such stories need to be integrated into their contexts.  I realize this is not easy, but it can be accomplished.  For examples of how “silenced voices” can be used to enhance larger understanding, I recommend Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon, and  A Lenape among the Quakers, by Dawn Marsh.

I do not recommend this book to other readers.

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