Author Robert Sharenow's, My Mother the Cheerleader, is an introspective first novel told from adult Louise Collin's recollection of her thirteenth year. The year her mother became a cheerleader; not the kind that sit on the sidelines cheering for football, but a group of white women, housewives and mothers, in 1960 New Orleans whose goal was to verbally harass a six year old black student named Ruby Bridges as she attended the first integrated school in the ninth ward.
Louise's mother runs a boarding house in New Orleans. A difficult woman who is an alcoholic, Pauline Collins regards her daughter more as inexpensive labor than a loving child. One afternoon a gentleman from New York arrives to stay at the "Rooms on Desire" who ultimately is a catalyst for change. Morgan Miller is a successful editor visiting New Orleans to make amends with his estranged brother. While his efforts in that regard are rebuffed, he soon has the romantic interest of both mother and daughter. Giddy with importance, Pauline prepares for her anticipated first date, bragging with importance to her friends, when Morgan arrives at the Ninth Ward school to view the Cheerleaders and is both physically and verbally assaulted by the crowd. What follows is a frightening series of events highlighting the fear and hatred prevalent with whites and blacks during the Civil Rights Era.
Louise is not sure why her mother is adamant she not attend school when her first "reaction to the news that William Frantz was to be integrated was to wonder why the Negro kids wanted to go to such a crummy school" (p. 10). Deeply rooted prejudice, including instances of the Klan, are presented in a matter-of-fact manner that is chilling. When Pauline is attacked in her home, beaten and raped by the men who assaulted Morgan, it is viewed as common occurrence. Fear of the Klan keeps the women from reporting the incident and it is not without irony that Louise runs to their housekeeper Charlotte for help when her mother is hurt; Charlotte is black.
This book does not white-wash the era, but the first person narrative does present a different perspective, that of a thirteen year old girl. There is no happily ever after, it would be inappropriate and disrespectful. However readers are left with the impression these characters have been challenged to look at their long held beliefs. Not an easy title to read and digest, it does present opportunity for discussion. For more information, an author interview is available on the Harper Collins web site: Robert Sharenow on My Mother the Cheerleader.
Tags: Robert Sharenow, My Mother the Cheerleader, Juvenile fiction, Juvenile historical fiction, Historical fiction - Civil Rights