It has been said that there is something about southern writers and born in Birmingham, Alabama, Sena Jeter Naslund follows in the tradition of southern authors’ uncanny ability to portray the south with passion and honesty without apologizing for racial unrest in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In Four Spirits Naslund let’s readers experience life in Birmingham Alabama from May 1963 to January 1965 through the eyes of a several of characters. The plot of the novel revolves around two tragedies. First, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September, 1963 that killed four teenage girls and the assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963.
Theme of Four Spirits
The theme of “four spirits” occurs three times in the book. In the first chapter Stella Silver, her mother, father and two siblings drive through a cyclone, the car is driven off the road and only Stella survives. Four members of Stella’s family die and from the age of five she is raised by two aunts. In the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church four teenage girls die. At the close of the book four of Stella’s friends die when they stage a sit in at the local Palace restaurant because they do not serve African Americans although they do allow African Americans to take orders to go. The ‘four spirits’ can be interpreted to be any of these events with four deaths or none of them. The one connection with all of the events is Stella Silver.
The book can be a challenge because of the many characters Naslund uses to portray the daily life of people in Birmingham in the early 1960’s. She uses many short chapters to show what is happening in the life of several characters on the same day. It is somewhat like a literary version of the movie Truman with Jim Carey multiplied by many characters.
Naslund also has historical characters from the civil rights movement interact with the fictional characters. The line between fact and fiction is not just blurred; it is difficult to determine if there is a line. Surprisingly as Naslund creates her fictional Birmingham Dr. Martin Luther King is not welcomed by local civil rights leaders, especially Rev. Fred Shuttleworth.
Unique Southern viewpoint
Equally surprising is the southern reaction to President Kennedy’s assassination from nonchalance to being glad the President was shot. Southerners disliked Catholics and blamed the President for supporting desegregation. They believed that President Johnson would protect the south from integration and civil liberty for African Americans.
The one character that has her story woven throughout the novel is Stella Silver who has many similarities with the author including giving up playing cello, loving literature, being a teacher, having her mother die when she was young and her mother being a musician. While Stella is in the age of discovery she can be self-absorbed, flippant and immature while also being courageous as she struggles to find her place in the world. As the book closes we are uncertain if Stella has found her path because she gives up teach to once again change direction and follows her third fiancé to work on voter registration.
Writing a historical novel
Naslund believes that historical fiction is one way to understand history not from the big picture but from ordinary individual’s lives as she expressed in an NPR interview on the Moring Edition program 10-7-03 : “What fiction does is allows us to know the story from the inside not the objective observed facts but the emotions of people who lived through it.”
The hard cover is 519 pages so you will devote some time to reading Four Spirits and the start of the book has a major time lapse that can be disconcerting. However, the effort to continue reading is worth it. Naslund provides excellent detail of the lives of the characters the reader follows. Most readers will shed tears when reading the chapter “Stella Listening” about the funeral of the four sit-in protestors. Naslund shows how history unfolds through the lives of ordinary individuals not the sweeping civil rights movement. Her approach is accessible and she shows us the drama of everyday life within an era of significant social change in the south. Take your time and read Four Spirits.