Travelling down life’s unknown roads

Book cover of “Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice” by Sylvia Bell White & Jody LePage.
Photo by University of Wisconsin Press
Photo by University of Wisconsin Press

“Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice” by Sylvia Bell White & Jody LePage

c.2013, University of Wisconsin Press

$27.95 / higher in Canada

289 pages

Turn left.

That’s what your GPS said, so you turned – though that didn’t seem correct and you knew that blind obedience to electronics isn’t always a good idea. Would you be late? End up lost? Or would you end up in exactly the right place?

Like a GPS, life also has a way of taking you down unknown roads. In the new book “Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice” by Sylvia Bell White & Jody LePage, for example, you’ll read about one woman’s journey from Louisiana to Wisconsin and into history.

Like most eight-year-old children, Sylvia Bell loved to play.

She remembered swinging from ropes with her brothers, batting baseballs, and getting “all dust and dirty.” As the seventh child of thirteen, and the only girl, Sylvia had simple fun while growing up in Louisiana in those pre-Depression years.

But when she was eight years old, her mother disappeared (something she did often), so Sylvia became a mother to “them boys.” She took over the cooking and housework but left disciplinary matters to her father, who was both “a mother and a father, to tell you the truth.”

Eventually, Sylvia’s mother returned (staying away, Jody LePage hints, might have been a method of birth control) and the family thrived. Sylvia’s father, a respected man in the community, kept two jobs and was able to buy a small farm in order to feed his brood. He raised his children with a velvet fist – though it’s speculated that as the father of a dozen boys, lynching and violence probably never left his mind.

At age 17, Sylvia became part of the Great Migration and moved to Milwaukee. When her mother died, she wanted to move back home but her father wouldn’t allow it so, with some of “them boys,” she returned to Wisconsin and her life.

Then, nearly 10 years later, in February 1958, something went horribly wrong: Sylvia’s brother, 21-year-old Dan, was stopped by two Milwaukee police officers at the edge of the highway one night and, after a brief pursuit, one of them shot Dan in the back of the neck.

They almost got away with it…

I don’t think I give away too much by emphasizing the word “almost” there. Just by browsing its dust jacket, you know what happens in “Sister”… but you don’t. No, you’ve really got to read this half history, half oral history book.

Early-on, author Jody LePage explains why she spent many hours recording Sylvia Bell White’s memories of life, family, and her steadfast demand for justice for her brother – memories that are fascinating, often charming, and occasionally horrifying. I enjoyed how the authors used history to set the stage for each chapter here, and I loved that this books’ authenticity (including speech peculiarities) and irresistible personality pull readers back through decades and geography.

If you’re looking for something that’s different, powerful, and sometimes delightful, then you’re going to love this book. For you and your cravings for history, “Sister” is a book to turn to.

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