Lamb, a sweet naïve teenager, lives in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1930s, in Lesa Cline-Ransome’s powerful book, “For Lamb” (Holiday House 2023). Simeon, Lamb’s impulsive, rebellious, and highly intelligent brother has been offered a scholarship to a northern black college. Marion, a single and outspoken seamstress, is a good mother to Lamb and Simeon and works hard to make a better life for her small family. We come to learn from subtle hints that Marion is a closet lesbian who has sent their father away. Now she throws raucous Saturday night parties at home. Adults come to drink, dance, and have a good time.
“For Lamb” is written in the points of view of those characters already mentioned as well as others. Each voice is distinctive in the expert hands of Cline-Ransome. With Uncle Chime, Marion’s hustling brother, we learn a bit of Marion’s ancestral history which fleshes out who each of them is by way of their siblings and parents. And we begin to see their personal stories, having lived their lives in a violently racist world. Lamb’s estranged father is a good man.
Segregation is the rule of the land and racism is central to this black family. Lamb may not be as brilliant as her brother, but she works hard and loves to read. She reluctantly stops doing her schoolwork in order to help her mother with sewing alterations when her boss, Mrs. Rowland, heaps work on Marion. Lamb says,
It’s not that Momma minds the work, she just minds Mrs. Rowland.
“Kind of colored who don’t know she colored,” Momma says.
Lamb knows her mother is speaking of Mrs. Rowland’s behavior, but it also means she is light colored with straight hair and could almost, but not quite, pass for white. However, it does afford Mrs. Rowland some advantages in dealing with the white community.
Lamb and Simeon are close and confide their secrets to each other. But that close sibling relationship is halted when Lamb is befriended by Marny, a white girl. Simeon believes in black pride and figures this is dangerous relationship. But Marny has given Lamb a book she loves and they are drawn together by reading.
They go to separate schools of course, but they meet in a field behind a barn and exchange books. At first Lamb is awkward, never having had a white friend, but she’s drawn to her new friend and her easy ways. As an adult reader, I’m nervous for the two girls. Marny’s father and big brother are clearly white supremacists. In time, Marny’s big brother forces Lamb into his truck. I’m sweating, I’m crying, I’m cursing. And naïve Lamb tells her big brother Simeon about the event, which sets off a terrible chain of events that will end in a lynching.
The violence happens off-page but we know it will happen and that it happened. The horrible event changes the lives of everyone involved and disrupts the extended family forever. It’s a difficult book to read but an important one. And the author’s note includes some powerful information.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning books: Lift As You Climb; Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue all signed and for sale at Jane Addams bookstore. Her forthcoming books are about women’s suffrage, Martha Graham, and Ella Fitzgerald. talesforallages.com