Noble statements tend to eclipse the long, complex battles that actually bring progress. Even when we know better, it's nice to imagine that The Declaration of Independence created the United States or the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.
But sometimes such shorthand is more than convenient; it's a comforting delusion. Consider the notion that the Brown v. Board of Education decision ended segregated education in 1954. Actually, a decade after the Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" education to be unconstitutional, more than 98 percent of the black children in the South still attended segregated schools.
Several new histories trace the legal and social legacy of that era with careful, detailed analysis (see list below). But novels promise a different kind of illumination, an emotional complexity that stands beyond the facts. Last fall, Sena Jeter Naslund hoped to capture the civil rights struggle with her "Four Spirits," but the novel collapsed under its pretentious moral certainty, and her characters couldn't compete with the revolutionary events exploding around them in Birmingham, Ala.
Dennis McFarland takes a different approach to the civil rights movement in his deeply affecting new novel, "Prince Edward." First, the narrator, an adult looking back at himself as a wide-eyed 10-year-old, is a man still deeply troubled by his own innocent complicity in that era. Second, the historical events he describes have faded from public imagination, rather than crystallizing into national legends. The result is a novel that provides as much fresh insight into the social history of America as it does into the nature of adolescence, drawing us back with a degree of fascination and horror to the nation's past and our own.
The story takes place in Prince Edward County, Va., in the summer of 1959, when Benjamin Rome is 10 years old. The town leaders, including Ben's father, an egg farmer, have struck upon a plan to circumvent the Supreme Court's desegregation order: They'll simply close their public schools and open a system of private academies for white children. Moving with all deliberate speed, they begin soliciting donations for books, constructing desks in churches and storefronts, and looting public school buildings at night. No plans are made for the county's two thousand black children. (Several Southern towns tried this tactic, but none persisted as long as Prince Edward County, which kept its public schools closed for five years.)
McFarland has lifted the broad outlines of this episode from history, along with some public figures who make cameo appearances, but the novel's focus remains Ben's private story: the summer he hovered between childhood and adulthood, picking up cloudy knowledge about sex and racism and the myriad kinds of unhappiness that infect his family.
None of the models available interests him as he struggles to imagine how he should grow up: His grandfather is a hypercritical bully and sexual predator; his gruff father remains constantly on guard for any alarming signs of sensitivity (sissyness); his older brother is a petty thief.
But still, the murky ways of adults captivate Ben - all their strange phrases and phases and their fascination with skin colors. McFarland is a genius with the tragic-comedy of adolescent confusion in the face of adults' hypocrisy. Why, he wonders, do adults insist so strenuously that children tell the truth, when it's obvious that the key to maturity and power is withholding it? "I typically imagined that I'd missed something," he writes. "The world couldn't possibly be as incomprehensible and full of contradictions as it seemed."
From a rusty barrel in the woods or from a rafter in the barn, Ben spies on people, listening and observing, picking up what he can barely understand. "I suppose," he writes many years later, "that growing older is always, among other things, a deepening acquaintance with human mischief, and mischief had lately begun to flourish in Prince Edward."
His only real friend is another 10-year-old, a black boy named Burghardt, who works with him in the egg barn. They've grown up together, ignoring the way adults worry about them swimming together or drinking from the same cup. But this is the summer Ben awakens from that racial innocence and begins to grasp the way his family and town conspire to smother his friend.
As September approaches and the private academies get ready to open, Ben finds himself torn by a particularly complex dilemma, brilliantly engineered by McFarland to look at once both happenstance and inevitable. In a ghastly moment that perfectly captures this perverse culture, his family's sexual politics twine with the county's social politics. Looking back, Ben realizes he was forced into the impossible situation of lying to save Burghardt and the racist system that oppressed him.
From a certain angle, this is a darker version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," but there's no Atticus figure to serve as the moral keel for McFarland's young narrator. "I was only a boy," Ben pleads with us and himself, still haunted by his failure to act more courageously.
That mingled perspective is the novel's most brilliant quality. The boy's fragile new sense of moral awareness could easily have been crushed beneath the narrator's wisdom. But McFarland maintains a delicate tone throughout, letting what the boy can't entirely grasp remain just out of focus, while the adult's chastened, melancholy perspective provides us with enough insight to feel the horrible weight of this tragedy.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.