Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend: A Civil Rights Story
By Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud
Illustrated by John Holyfield
On shelves now
Certain historical figures inspire multiple generations of children’s authors to go a little hog wild and pig crazy writing up their lives for general posterity. The biography section of my children’s room, like many out there, suffers from an overabundance of Lincoln/Edison/Washington/etc. bios. Even utterly worthy folks like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. get a little overdone, causing one to wonder why folks even bother. Do authors keep writing about the same five folks because schools concentrate only on those people and therefore it is more lucrative to give them credit over and over again? How hard is it to find new takes on overdone cultural heroes? Enter Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud. Shelved in the fiction picture book section of your local library, the book actually places the bulk of its attention on a true moment in history, little remembered in schools and textbooks. Though it is couched in a made up story, Ramsey and Stroud have found a way to give Dr. King’s legacy a new tale and take. The end result is a book that may straddle the line between story and truth, but there will be few who argue that it straddles the line between good and bad.
Alex is bored. His mom has dragged him along to Gee’s Bend so that she can buy a quilt, but while she’s doing so he’s stuck on an old porch with nothing to look at but an old mule chomping on somebody’s garden of collard greens. When an old woman joins him on the bench and introduces herself as Miz Pettway Alex inquires as to why the mule is allowed to eat all the greens it wants. She explains that Belle isn’t just any old mule. Back in the day when segregation was rampant Dr. Martin Luther King visited Gee’s Bend. After encouraging the residents to take the ferry the people find that the white folks in Camden across the river are so intent to deny the vote that they’ve closed down the ferry. Undeterred the Benders had their mules pull them along and around the river the long way. Later when Dr. King died, Belle and a mule named Ada were selected to pull his coffin along its funeral route. Of course state policeman tried to stop the mules from arriving, but when it was clear that there would be a national incident if the mules were not taken to the funeral, state troopers escorted the animals the rest of the way. That is why Belle, for all that she’s a mule, is important. As Alex himself says, “even an old mule can be a hero.” An Author’s Note explaining the true history of this incident alongside a photograph of the actual mules pulling Dr. King’s coffin, is included at the end.
Many is the children’s librarian who has picked up a work of historical fiction like this and encountered what can only be described as Needless Exposition: The Book. Let me describe it to you. In such a book a child character walks up to an adult and asks something along the lines of, “Grandpa what was World War II / Jim Crow / The Bay of Pigs?” (take your pick). Then the adult tells them what they want the reader to know and there you go. Instant book. Such stories don’t always make a lot of sense either. Oftentimes you’ll encounter a narrator who by all rights would have been told such a story long ago, or the adult narrator will mention facts that would be obvious to the child in the story, though not the one reading the book. Part of what I like so much about Belle is that Ramsey and Stroud really put a lot of work into giving Alex a reason for wanting to hear what Miz Pettway has to say. First off, he’s bored out of his skull, so while an average boy his age wouldn’t necessarily want to hear an old person tell a story, “he was curious and there was nothing else to do.” Second, the reason he’s curious is because Miz Pettway has said that an old mule is a hero and there’s a mystery behind that statement. Most kids don’t want to be lectured about history, but if you give `em the double whammy of mystery plus boredom, you’ve got `em hooked.
The writing works really well within the context of the history. Perhaps the most chilling moment comes when the white sheriff of Camden justifies shutting down the ferry and denying the Gee’s Bend residents the right to vote by saying, “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.” It’s just the right level of complicated to inspire family and classroom discussions of what exactly he means. As for Ms. Pettway and Alex, their dialogue is natural and unaffected. There’s none of that stilted speaking that comes when authors have a tin ear for regular speech. The result is a book that reads aloud particularly well.
Reading this story I did have to wonder what year Alex existed in. Interestingly it is illustrator John Holyfield who clears up much of the confusion of when this book takes place. Holyfield’s best known work to date has been on Phil Bildner’s The Hallelujah Flight, a book that, like this one, took a historical moment in African-American history and cast a thin veneer of fiction over it. His style resembles that of fellow illustrator Frank Morrison, though his figures are perhaps a little less spiky about their limbs. So while librarians may read this book and then try to calculate the estimated lifespan of your average mule, Holyfield saves us some time and trouble by placing visual clues in his narrative. Alex, our hero, holds in his hand an old paddleball, the like of which I’ve not seen in years. His hair too takes on a particularly Afro like size and scope, suggesting this tale to be perhaps ten years or so after the death of Dr. King. That kind of timing works by my estimation. After ten years kids were learning the details of the Civil Rights Movement in school. King, to them, was more historical figure than actual person. Holyfield works primarily in the realm of acrylics. Brown appears to be the most prominent color at work here, and while it is by no means the only one, I did sometimes find myself yearning for some brighter fare.
Gee’s Bend appears in children’s books at regular intervals. Recently we’ve seen books like Patricia McKissack’s Stitchin’ and Pullin': A Gee’s Bend Quilt and Leaving Gee’s Bend by Irene Latham. What’s nice about this book, of course, is that it looks beyond the quilts to the area’s moment in Dr. King’s life and death. It’s a take never before handled in a children’s picture book format, and that it slides as easily as it does into this category is a testament to the authors’ skills. Lovely to look at, informative, infinitely readable. The kind of book you can simply enjoy reading and having on your shelf.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.