A Mississippi Whisper

Written by Paul H. Yarbrough
Review by B. J. Sedlock

Charlie McCoy, 10, lives in Jackson, Mississippi in 1953. He and his friends learn from a policeman that a skeleton was found after a fire in a cabin on an abandoned farm outside of town. Charlie thinks Joe Washington, an African-American junk/ice man, might know something about it, but the adults don’t think it a fit topic for children, so the kids are left to speculate. When Charlie goes to the farm later to retrieve a knife he dropped in the Big House, he overhears Joe on the floor below talking to someone about Joe’s father accidentally killing a man. Is this the answer to the mysterious skeleton find?

While the question of how the skeleton came to be inside the burned cabin drives the rather leisurely plot forward, the mystery angle is secondary. The emphasis is on Charlie as a naïve narrator, presenting pre-integration Mississippi life from a white child’s point of view. The book revels in 1950s nostalgia, with references to Korea, Eisenhower, Playboy, baseball, radio serials, polio scares, the agonies of boys forced to go school shopping, and concerns about what the planned interstate highway will do to the town. The Civil Rights movement has not yet begun, so Charlie’s interactions with African Americans are mostly confined to Joe, the family maid Mary Hester, and July, the school janitor. References to Charlie’s sister Katy Jean are cryptic – there is something odd about her, but it’s not revealed until the final chapter. Readers who don’t demand an exciting plot point in every single chapter and those nostalgic for their 1950s childhood will enjoy the trip back in time. An epilogue tells what happened to the characters in later life.