Acts of Courage – Black, White and Read

Cathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library. By Cathy Okhuysen.

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Stories of courage – like the one of these young women poets –  are inspiring in any season.


But during this time of year, as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and move into Black History Month, we often think of those heroes who have overcome hatred, prejudice and discrimination. May these novels, describing acts of courage large and small, give you hope in a time of societal tension and conflict.

tokillamockingbirdReading or re-reading as an adult the classic to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee reminds us how necessary this book was in 1960, and how much courage was required just to write it.

The one place a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.

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The Help by Katherine Stockett (2009) was made into a blockbuster movie in 2011. Such an act of courage by Abileen, to even tell her stories, and Skeeter to make them public. This is also a great audio listen – even if you have already read the book or seen the movie!

the-invention-of-wings-sue-monk-kidd_t580I will be curious to see if Sarah and Handful from Sue Monk Kidd‘s Invention of Wings  (2014) will show up on screen in a few years. Set in pre-Civil War South Carolina, this is the story of Sarah, who never wanted to own a slave, and Handful, who becomes closer to a friend than a servant. In their own way, each of the two girls grows up to defy many boundaries of the time.

The boundary lines are very blurry for Rachel in our hidden gem of courage (also our February Book Discussion title!),  The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow.

GirlWhoFellInspired by a true story of a mother’s twisted love, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky reveals an unfathomable past and explores issues of identity at a time when many people are asking, “Must race confine us and define us?”

In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sandra Cisneros’  House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.

Imagine starting a new school at 11 years old… moving from military to civilian life in the 1980s… and living with your father’s mother and sister, neither white nor black, but blue eyed from your Danish mother. Rachel struggles courageously to find out, and then accept, her own story.

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More than 100 years earlier, blue eyed Lydia from Loom by Shella Gillus has the chance to move from house slave to passing as white, but struggles to find the freedom she seeks. Is staying or leaving more courageous? Don’t forget to read the author’s note.

Our Nig, by Harriett Wilson, (1859) is an 19th century coming of age story set in the North.  A free black, she too struggles with freedom and how she can change the story of her life. Just surviving required daily courage.

our-nigWho knew that this book, recognized as the first novel by an African American author to be published in the United States, had a New Hampshire connection? Rediscovered in 1982, this book now includes extensive scholarly notes. Wilson was born in Milford, NH and records show that her mother moved from Portsmouth to Milford. Perhaps she had relatives at the Portsmouth African Burying Ground.

What are your favorite tales of courage?

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