By Bruce Watson (Viking, 384 pages, $27.95)
This book is an amazing account of one pivotal summer in the history of civil rights. Through interviews and exhaustive research, Watson tells of the heroic efforts by members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to organize voter registration in Mississippi. With the help of hundreds of white students, they eventually forced the National Democratic Party, and thus the rest of the country, to acknowledge the inequity of an individual state's efforts to refuse voting rights to its black citizens. The strategy was brilliant, if controversial among the black community, in that it opened the eyes of the idealistic and mostly privileged white volunteers to the brutal reality of life under Jim Crow. The deaths that summer of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney brought a laser focus to Mississippi's entrenched racism. But "Freedom Summer" tells of those people, black and white, who worked together to shine a light on injustice. With a thriller's pacing, the book forcefully describes the depravity and treachery behind the bombings, beatings and intimidation. Watson also shows the physical and emotional costs of such a fight, noting in an epilogue that some of the volunteers and organizers remained political (Stokely Carmichael, Barney Frank) while others retreated but were, like the United States, forever changed.
KATHE CONNAIR / COPY EDITOR
By John Wray (Picador, 272 pages, $14 paperback).
Will Heller is 16, obsessed with a girl named Emily, and on the lam in New York City's vast subway system. He's also schizophrenic, and the parts of "Lowboy" written in his voice reveal a compassionate, but not pandering, understanding of this particularly torturous mental illness. Will skitters through the city in search of Emily, staying one step ahead of his mother, Violet, and missing-persons detective Ali. His adventures are filtered through a delusional mind that spits flashes of brilliance. Paced like an airplane read, the story alternates points of view with Ali, a calm, intellectually curious man who is as perplexed with Violet's oddly defiant behavior as is he with Will. As violence in Will's past comes to light, Violet harbors a secret of her own. While the high level of suspense maintained throughout leads to an almost inevitable letdown, the last paragraph is a gutwrencher you suspected all along was coming, just not the form it takes.
KRISTIN TILLOTSON / FEATURES REPORTER