At the First Baptist Church of Maeby, Arkansas, the sins of the child belonged to the parents until the child turned thirteen. Sarah Jones was only eight years old in the summer of 1964, but with her mother Esther Mae on eight prayer lists and flipping around town with the generally mistrusted civil rights organizers, Sarah believed it was time to get baptized and take responsibility for her own sins. That would mean sitting on the mourner’s bench come revival, waiting for her sign, and then testifying in front of the whole church.
But first, Sarah would need to navigate the growing tensions of small-town Arkansas in the 1960s. Both smarter and more serious than her years (a “fifty-year-old mind in an eight-year-old body,” according to Esther), Sarah was torn between the traditions, religion, and work ethic of her community and the progressive civil rights and feminist politics of her mother, who had recently returned from art school in Chicago. When organizers from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to town just as the revival was beginning, Sarah couldn’t help but be caught up in the turmoil. Most folks just wanted to keep the peace, and Reverend Jefferson called the SNCC organizers “the evil among us.” But her mother, along with local civil rights activist Carrie Dilworth, the SNCC organizers, Daisy Bates, attorney John Walker, and indeed most of the country, seemed determined to push Maeby toward integration.
With characters as vibrant and evocative as their setting, Mourner’s Bench is the story of a young girl coming to terms with religion, racism, and feminism while also navigating the terrain of early adolescence and trying to settle into her place in her family and community.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: September 15, 2015 by University of Arkansas Press
Number of pages: 340
Q: A coming of age story set in 1960s Arkansas that intersects with race, gender, and religion is an ambitious undertaking! What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
A: Voice, structure, and character development. Sarah’s voice was my primary concern. She is the narrator, so one of the major decisions was whether to use her voice in both narrative and dialogue, and whether I should use the adult voice in narrative and her young voice in dialogue. Although Sarah is an adult looking back at this period in her life, I decided to tell the story primarily from the point of view of her as a young girl.
I wanted the characters to sound as if they were from rural Arkansas during the 1960s, so language and dialect became important. I studied plays from the 1960s to see and hear the language, and I would record voices when I visited Arkansas, especially at family gatherings when we let our guard down. I knew these voices but I needed to silence the noise in my head and the environment so I could hear the characters speak individually and within their community. It took me the longest to hear and capture Esther’s voice because it was a mixture of city and country. It wasn’t until she decided to stop being shy and speak up that all of the pieces to the puzzle came together, which leads to the next most challenging aspect, structure.
I didn’t want to tell a singular story. I wanted the setting and characters to come alive on the page, which meant that I needed to find a way to make gender, race, family, civil rights and community work in the characters’ lives simultaneously. Nobody experiences one event in her life at a time; generally, we are trying to balance several balls in the air. Esther’s actions are the connectors. Most of the characters are reacting to the choices she makes.
The third aspect was character development. The civil rights movement was all about change, and in Mourner’s Bench from the summer of 1964 through the winter of 1965, not only the narrator, but most everything had to evolve, including the setting, characters, and their voices; but in some ways, everything needed to remain the same like love, and community. Then there had to be the possibility for the hope of something new.
Q: Who are the real, historical figures in the book?
A: Below is a list of a few of the historical figures I mention in the book. There are others whose names I changed for no other reason than this is a work of fiction. My hope is that scholars, historians, and fiction writers will continue to research and write about them.
Carrie Dilworth--- (1899 - 1979) was born on August 29, 1899. She lived in Gould, Arkansas, and was a local officer for the racial egalitarian Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) in the 1930s, and 30 years later she was a civil rights movement pioneer working with SNCC.
John Walker --- Mr. Walker is a native of Hope, Arkansas. He graduated Jack Yates High School in Houston, Texas; Arkansas AM&N (UAPB) in Pine Bluff with a bachelor’s degree in sociology; master’s degree from New York University in New York City, and a law degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He worked as an intern with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. In 1965, he opened his civil rights law practice in Little Rock (Arkansas Gazette).
Bill Henson-- was the first director of the Arkansas Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Hansen worked as a civil rights activist in Arkansas between 1962 and 1966. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. While a student at Xavier University, he co-founded the Xavier Interracial Council, which was designed to support the Southern civil rights struggle. Hansen soon dropped out of college and, in 1961, joined SNCC. (Arkansas Quarterly).
Daisy Bates--- (1914-1999), was born in Huttig, Arkansas. She was a Newspaper owner (Arkansas State Press) and civil rights activist who withstood economic, legal, and physical intimidation to champion racial equality, most notably in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Reverend George Stith--- (1915-1997) was born in Dermott, Arkansas and he was the 7th of 13 children. He began sharecropping at age fourteen. He became a member of STFU in 1934 and went on to serve on the STFU executive council, VP of National Agricultural Workers Union, AFL.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about your latest work?
A: No, not now. Im sure there may be some things, but it has gone through many revisions, and now that it is published, I dont want to second guess myself.
Q: What advice would you give other writers?
A: Keep writing. I was given that advice from Ron Carlson and Alberto Rios when I first started writing, but it wasn’t until I finished this novel that I realized how valuable their advice was. Anything can be fixed if it’s on the page. Don’t allow doubt to rule you because it will take over and you won’t ever finish a story.
Praise for Mourner's Bench:
"An absorbing meditation on the meaning of religion in a small town as well as a keen-eyed perspective on the way one African-American community encountered the civil rights movement. An astute coming-of-age tale set against an all-too-relevant background."
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