White Lilacs — Book Review

I flew through this in like two days. Yes, it is technically young adult historical fiction, but I think everyone would benefit from readings this. I don’t know exactly why I selected this book to read at this time. It has been on my shelf for years. Maybe with Juneteenth fast approaching, my subconscious knew it would be a timely and appropriate read? I don’t know.

This book depicts racism so well, in my white woman opinion … how it can be overt or more subtle and how kids are swept up in the systems at play, even if they try to buck against the system. Rose Lee appeared to be such a genuine and honest character, a real young girl just trying to navigate her life while being subjected to witnessing the stark contrast between her own life and the life of her white friend Catherine Jane… and all its luxuries. I hated Catherine’s character, but I guess you were sort of supposed to? I challenged myself to think what I might have done in her situation and I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think I would openly be friends with a black girl that served my family… but I can’t say for sure. She’s a kid in a culture steeped in racism. What can she do?

I really resonated with Henry’s views when it came about that the whites were wanting to build a park where the blacks lived. I shared his sentiment, thinking: Well, the blacks are the ones doing all the damn work and making the place nice, if everyone coordinated and stopped working, maybe something would change?

That might be foolish, but it was hard not to at least sympathize with his views. Some times, though, I guess you do have to select an option that is less than ideal to try to avoid violence, I guess.

This story was powerful, showing not only how the landscape changed, with the images of houses being pulled away, but also how characters came of age and developed– How CJ and Rose Lee couldn’t be friends in public. They had such an interesting relationship. Can you really call it a friendship though if it’s not public? Perhaps.

It’s interesting how Meyer chose to name the town Freedom… as most of the residents were black and still seemed to work for white folks. Even though slavery had ended, it still didn’t quite seem like “freedom.” An obvious point, but still worth mentioning.

I also have to comment that it seems like the author is white? Or passes for white? At least based on a picture I saw of her online. I don’t know why I think this is notable, but for some reason I just feel like if this book had been written more recently, there may have been backlash. Not because she isn’t a good writer, but because of how she looks. I’m not saying I understand her experience or racial identity, just an observation. I thought it was interesting she chose to focus on white lilacs and how much Rose Lee’s grandpa loved them and took care of them, I believe, initially taking unwanted or snipped flowers from the white people’s garden that he worked for. I don’t know if I like the imagery though of like.. whiteness symbolizing beauty/purity… I sort of wish Meyer did something different and chose a different flower. Why should Rose Lee’s grandpa or any character like white lilacs so much? Other flowers may be rare too. Maybe they could have chosen a flower that was rugged, and didn’t need a lot of care to survive, one that was brought to the land from a different climate and slowly adapted? I don’t know. I just wanted more from that symbol, I think. I get that the lilac bush eventually died so it’s sort of like innocence died too, but that died long before the bush died in the book? Anyway, I may be rambling, but it just seemed wrong to me to have a white flower be the sort of motif for carrying across messages in this work.

Overall, I did like it and I think young people need to read it. It’s… awful to think that such things did, and do, take place. Timely topics, timely read.

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