Freedom Lessons: A Novel

Written by Eileen Harrison Sanchez
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

Told in alternating viewpoints, this impressive novel reaches back in time to the early days of school integration, and to a place in America where resistance to integration was substantial.

The setting is the late 1960s, and Colleen is an idealistic white school teacher who moves from the north to rural Louisiana with her husband, who is of Cuban descent. When she lands a job at the school for black children, she is appalled at the discrepancies between the white school and the black school regarding supplies, quality, and support from the district. Colleen forms a tenuous friendship with Evelyn, a black teacher who is well respected in the community. Frank is a student and black football player whose father died under mysterious circumstances; Frank may know more about his father’s death than he is letting on.

In response to a US Supreme Court order, the school district closes the black school with almost no notice. This attempt to integrate the white school by closing the black school and firing many black teachers leads to chaos and unrest, with unpleasant consequences for the town and for some main characters. For example, when Frank is forced to attend the newly integrated school, his chances at playing football are in jeopardy.

The impact of the forced integration of a school in the Deep South reverberates throughout the community and is skillfully explored within the book, particularly through the lenses of three characters with distinct voices. Though the incident in the book occurred 50 years ago, it is a timely reminder of today’s persistent racial climate. The book is a quick read but engaging and enlightening. The character of Colleen is based upon the author’s own experience, which undoubtedly contributes to the book’s authenticity.