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07 March 2015

Book Review: Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little RockElizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My son and I went to the Brown vs. the Board of Education National Park site in Topeka last year.  Writ large on a wall was a copy of the Johnny Jenkins version of the picture of Elizabeth and Hazel. Elizabeth, eyes hidden by sunglasses, in a perfectly pressed skirt and shirt, grasping a notebook in her thin, dark-skinned arm. Hazel behind her, her white face contorted, her mouth agape with hate.  I knew nothing about the two women. I didn't know their names. I didn't even, at that point, know that the picture depicted part of the story of the Little Rock Nine.  But the picture captivated me.  I took a picture of my son, grasping his Junior Ranger packet in his thin, white arm, staring at the picture. What my photo didn't capture was what he said as he gazed; "Mom, people were pretty ignorant back then, huh?"

Fast forward several months later. We were traveling through Arkansas and stopped at the Little Rock Central High School historic site.  There was the picture again; a different version (and, I later discovered, a more famous version by Will Counts, though I confess I find much more drama and emotion in the Jenkins snap)  Then, in the bookshop, I saw a poster of two older ladies, one black, one white, standing in front of Central High School. "Reconciliation," it was called. I did not recognize those aged ladies as the two from the picture that had captured my imagination. But then, browsing further, I came across this book.

I was thrilled. I expected to be captivated by the story of these two women. About the world they lived in then. About the world they live in now. And about the world they traveled in between.

I was disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were way too high. But this book disappoints at almost every level. It spends time telling the story of how the picture(s) came to be.  It tells the story of how America reacted to the picture (including a famous anecdote about how Louis Armstrong was finally inspired to speak out against racism based on the anger he felt at being confronted with that picture). It tells the story of life inside that high school for the Little Rock Nine (only the Japanese students, left over from the WWII internment camps, were more isolated). It tells the story about the larger issue of race relations in America.

But then it falls into tabloid territory when it starts to try to capture the lives of the two women; it feels more like material for afternoon television than material for The New Yorker.  Sentences like "It is here that I step into the story" are illustrative of the heavy hand of the author.

But, despite its weaknesses, I am glad I read the book.  At some point, Hazel (the white girl) says "Life is more than a moment." But these two women might never overcome their moment because we, as a nation, can't really let them. It's almost as if we need them to be nameless iconoclasts instead of real humans who moved forward and continued living after the shutter snapped.

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