Denise Nicholas’s accomplished debut novel, Freshwater Road, out this fall from Evanston-based Agate Publishing, is set during the hot, turbulent Mississippi summer of 1964. Nineteen-year-old University of Michigan student Celeste Tyree heads south to work on the One Man, One Vote registration campaign and run a “freedom school”; her father, a Detroit bar owner and self-avowed “race man,” fears for her life, and her estranged mother scolds Celeste for being “too Negro.” Not long after being assigned to one-stoplight Pineyville she gets called “jiggaboo” by a white man; a key piece of advice from a fellow organizer is “try not to get killed.” But it’s far worse for those who live there: the indignities and injustices–to say nothing of the murders–suffered by the local black population at the hands of ignorant racists is heartbreaking. Nicholas includes plenty of historical detail, invoking Emmett Till and the slaying that summer of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, but I trust the veracity of the rest of her narrative for another reason: she was there too; as a young performer with the Free Southern Theater she toured the South from 1964 to ’66. Best known as a TV actress in such shows as In the Heat of the Night (though I remember her as the hot guidance counselor Liz McIntyre on the early-70s dramedy Room 222), Nicholas appears poised to have an equally successful second career as a writer. Sat 10/29, 2 PM, Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted, 312-747-6921. Wed 11/2, 7 PM, Borders, 1539 W. 53rd, 773-752-8663.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Ann Halpin.