Author: A.B. Westrick
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 12, 2013
Audience: Ages 10 and up
Summary: Two years after the Civil war has ended Yankee soldiers still patrol the streets of Richmond and families like the Weavers, Mama, Jeremiah, 17, and Shadrach, 15, struggle to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs. Their father was killed at Gettysburg. Granddaddy Weaver has a tailor shop on Main St. where Shad works. Jeremiah, the oldest, should be learning to be a tailor as he will inherit the shop but he prefers other activities such as meetings of the Ku Klux Klan. Shad, in contrast to his literate, aggressive brother can’t read, although he’s been to Sunday school. He seems slow, and seldom gets the approval that Jeremiah does. Shad longs to be like Jeremiah and so climbs out the window and follows him one night to a Ku Klux Klan meeting where almost by accident he is inducted into the Klan. Shad feels good about joining because he gains approval from men in the community and because one purpose of the group is to help widows of the Confederacy. Mrs. Perkins, a wealthy woman who patronizes Granddaddy Weaver’s tailoring shop, is known as a Yankee sympathizer. Her home is the center of education for colored people- a beginning class in the shed for children taught by two young Negro women, Rachel and Eloise; an advanced class tutored by Mrs. Perkins; a future class for teachers that Mr. Nelson, a reading expert from the north will teach. Shad, who is actually dyslexic (the term is not used in the book) gains the interest of Mr. Nelson. He is offered the chance to learn to read if he will begin in the class for the children. Shad swallows his pride and attends a class taught by Rachel and Eloise with black children and as his payment he instructs the children in sewing. Jeremiah and the Klan begin to investigate the teaching of colored people, a crime in the old Confederacy. They kill Mr. Nelson while Shad looks on and burn the shed where the young children meet for school. Shad does manage to warn Mrs. Perkins about the burning of the shed and so saves the lives of Rachel and the children. Jeremiah is arrested and Shad faces a future with a dangerous divided loyalty: membership in the Klan and commitment to protecting the school for the freed slaves.
Literary elements at work in the story: This is an important book-important because it deals with a period of history that is usually ignored in juvenile fiction. Information about the Freedman’s Bureau, the Klan, the law, and the living conditions bring Richmond under Reconstruction to life. It’s important also because it opens the complexity and danger of ethical decisions in a compelling way. The author says her purpose was to draw readers into Shad’s world so that they could experience his emerging capacity to question his culture. Most young persons who read this book will be appalled at the attitude and actions that are described. Yet Shad is a real person, stretching for mature manhood, bound by his family and social history, confused by experiences and relationship that are new. Within his world there are various viewpoints about race-his father’s, his grandfather’s, Jeremiah’s, Mrs. Perkin’s-and these puzzle and challenge Shad. The story moves through Westrick’s clear, concise prose. It is told without judgement, with understanding and with a full exploration of the thoughts and struggles of the characters involved.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Race and economics are both a significant part of Brotherhood. Shad’s shirts are made of feed sacks. The poverty of families like his is evident. The Yankee soldiers who arrest Jeremiah refer to him as “poor white trash.” Most people in the south didn’t live on big plantations and this is a book about the poor. The prejudice of these people, who never owned slaves, is startling at this distance in time. “Colored” is the usual term for former slaves who are considered like animals, unable to learn, too lazy to work. Jeremiah has to compete with them for jobs now and this fuels his hatred.
Theological Conversation Partners: There is ample evidence here that the Bible, instruction in the teachings of Christ, and prayer were important in this family’s life yet it would be difficult to imagine a less Christ-like attitude toward others. This may be a good place to shine the light on the distance in our own lives between what we believe and what we do. The culture in which Shad lives believes that black people are inferior; they cannot learn and should not learn; it is wrong to have any social relationships with them. How do we learn prejudice? And how do we unlearn it? What enables a person to stand outside a culture and change? As Christians we believe God can change people. Two things that were pushing Shad to a different view were learning and relationships. This may be an opportunity to talk about the church’s role in education and community, to evaluate the impact of our relationship on others. Jesus told a story about a Pharisee, considered righteous, and a tax collector, a sinner. (Luke 18:9-14) Compared to the tax collector, the Pharisee looked good. In the same way, we can compare the attitudes of the south in the Reconstruction and our attitudes today . Yet God calls us to see ourselves in relation to Christ, not to others. In this light, our attitudes and actions may require examination and repentence.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Shad’s father says that the Bible doesn’t say slavery is wrong. Is he right? How would you answer him?
- What part do the Bible and prayer play in the lives of Shad’s family? Can you think of instances in your own or someone else’s life where what we are taught and what we do are at complete variance?
- Singing occurs several times in the story: Dixie, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Can you think of songs that were part of the Civil Rights movement. Why is music important?
- What indications do you see that Shad is growing in his understanding and sympathy? What contributes to this?
- What pressures keep Shad in the same patterns of prejudice and violence against those who are different?
- Do you think there is a relationship between low self-esteem and prejudice?
- Could Shad have left the Klan? What would have been the consequences?
- Is Brotherhood a good name for this book?
This review is written by Union Presbyterian Seminary alumna Virginia Thomas
Brotherhood by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.