from Nina Revoyrs Wingshooters
Novelist Nina Revoyr is the author of four books, including Southland, which was an LA Times “Best Book of 2003” and an Edgar Award Finalist. Her latest novel, Wingshooters, is an absorbing, searing account of race relations in the U.S. The book centers on Mikey, a half-white, half-Japanese girl growing up with her grandparents in Wisconsin during the 1970s. Mikey’s neighbors and schoolmates shun her because of her race, but they soon find a new object for their hatred when a young black couple moves into town. Below is an excerpt from Wingshooters, which Akashic Books will publish in March.
I found out the next Monday at school. Like every other child in town between the ages of five and 10, I attended Deerhorn Elementary, the old, one-story brick building on the other side of town. It had always been a trial for me to get there. Although I’d figured out the safest routes by now, I sometimes still encountered kids who jumped out from behind trees to scare me or who tried to keep me off their streets. The most persistent of these was a girl named Jeannie Allen. Her house was situated in the cradle of a Y whose right arm led to the school. If she was out in her yard, she’d try to turn me around or chase me down the left side of the Y, adding a half a mile to my trip.
Jeannie wasn’t outside her house that morning, but arriving at school was no relief. As I entered the hallway, someone shoved me hard from behind, and I couldn’t tell whether this contact was accidental, or a special Monday morning greeting just for me.
“Morning, niphead,” a fifth grader offered as he passed, and the girls around him giggled. The week before, a group of fourth graders had pushed me against a wall and made me count to ten in Japanese, but today I made it to my locker without further incident. I saw that there were fresh ink marks on the front of my locker, black scrawlings that were supposed to be kanji. The janitor had painted over them several times before finally giving up, and now things just collected, layer upon layer of jagged black marks, spelling out my difference.
“Your daddy’s a Jap-lover!” a girl hissed behind me.
“Yeah,” said her friend, “I heard her mama’s a geisha whore.”
“That can’t be,” said the first girl. “’Cos geishas are pretty. And Michelle’s butt-ugly—just look at her.”
I didn’t reply—I never replied—and fought the urge to turn and face them. After I got my books, I walked quickly to class and kept my eyes trained on the floor.
Although technically, as a nine-year-old, I should have been in fourth grade, the school officials had decided when I arrived the year before that my reading and writing in English were spotty enough to keep me back a grade. It hadn’t helped that I’d lived in Deerhorn for more than a month before I’d gone to school; because my grandparents didn’t think I was staying, it hadn’t occurred to them to enroll me. By the time it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere, I’d missed several weeks of the school year already and was way behind my class. So now I was assigned to Miss Anderson’s third grade class, a year below the rest of my age group.
Penny Anderson was a tall, dark-haired woman in her late twenties. She was completely unlike the teachers I’d had in Japan—both the stern, daunting teachers in the Japanese school, and the friendly but firm teachers at the English-language school. Miss Anderson always seemed nervous, starting to venture one way in conversation or movement, and then pausing and changing direction. She had a way of half-laughing that made it hard to believe she was really amused; her anger, usually accompanied by an almost comically furrowed brow, was equally unconvincing. Miss Anderson’s one distinguishing feature was her beautiful voice. She sang in the church choir, and even when she yelled at you, it sounded like a lullaby. Often, in the mornings, she lingered at her doorway on the chance that the principal, Mr. Baker, would pass by. Everyone knew that Mr. Baker and Miss Anderson were boyfriend and girlfriend, even though he had a wife.
That morning, though, when I entered the classroom, Miss Anderson was sitting at her desk looking troubled. I wondered if Mr. Baker was absent this morning, but as all the children settled into their seats for roll call, the usual morning jokes and light chatter that went on before the bell rang were replaced by a strange and different murmur.
“He’s supposed to come tomorrow? But my mom said Mr. Baker wouldn’t let him.”
“My dad said he’d come over himself, if that’s what it took to stop it.”
“I’ve never seen one before, have you? What do they look like?”
“I’m glad I’m not in fifth grade,” said Brady Grimson, whose parents ran a diner on Route 5.
“Yeah,” said Tommy Fry, the pharmacist’s son, “and you’ll never get there, either.”
Finally, the bell rang and Miss Anderson stood up. “All right, children. Settle down. Did you have a good weekend? What did you do?”
Everyone went silent and rapt with attention, and this, more than anything, made me realize that something was wrong.
“Well, what did you all do?” Miss Anderson asked again. “Did anyone go on a car trip?”
Slowly, tentatively, Missy Calloway raised her hand. She was the smartest girl in class, a no-nonsense, stocky, bespectacled child whose farm parents treated her with bewildered respect, as if she were a visiting alien. Missy didn’t waste her time on the childish topics that occupied most of our classmates, and I always listened to what she had to say. “Miss Anderson,” she said, after the teacher acknowledged her, “is it true we have a Negro teacher coming?”
Miss Anderson started to draw herself up straight, and then fell back into a tired slouch.
“Yes, Missy, it’s true,” she answered, and the room exploded into chaos, thirty voices speaking all at once. Miss Anderson put her hands up to call for silence and the noise subsided a little. “The teacher’s name is Mr. Garrett, and he’s going to be substituting in Mrs. Hebig’s class until after she has her baby.”
Now everyone was silent. Finally, Brady Grimson spoke without raising his hand. “But . . . why is he coming?”
“I just told you. Mrs. Hebig is out because she’s having a baby, and—”
“No, I mean, why is he coming to Deerhorn?”
Everyone looked at Miss Anderson, waiting, more interested and attentive than they ever were when she was talking about biology or math.
“I’m not sure, Brady. But I hear that his wife is a nurse over at the clinic.”
The room was quiet while we digested this information. The one other time the classroom felt this way—tense, strange, uncertain, unbelieving—was when we heard that Mr. Greene, our P.E. teacher, had been paralyzed in a boating accident.
Miss Anderson tried to teach that morning, covering a lesson on plants and oxygen, but no one was paying attention. My classmates whispered to each other when her back was turned, and for once she didn’t really seem to care. Finally, at 10:30, she let us out for recess, and while the other kids all shifted easily into their out-of-class selves—chasing each other and yelling, jumping on the monkey bars and swing sets—I was still thinking about what Miss Anderson had told us.
A Negro teacher was coming to teach at our school, and his wife was a nurse at the clinic. A black couple had moved to Deerhorn, a town that, before my own arrival the year before, had never been home to a soul who wasn’t white. In that town, in 1974, this was as dramatic and inconceivable as deer starting to speak or a flock of ducks flying backwards. To my grandparents and their friends, black people lived elsewhere, in big-city slums or remote country settings, deep in the backwater South. Blacks, they believed, were lazy and ignorant, and if any one Negro had not run afoul of the law, it would only be a matter of time before he succumbed to his basic nature and robbed a house or assaulted a woman. To them, the voting and housing laws of the 1960s and ’70s must have seemed like capitulations, the equivalent of handouts from a weak-willed government and directly counter to the natural order of things. Blacks could be useful, yes, in other parts of the country, to work as field hands or nannies or cooks. But they were certainly not meant to be employed there in Deerhorn. They were not meant to live among whites.
This unthinking racism was so accepted and prevalent that people didn’t even bother to disguise it. One of the reasons why people were discouraged from visiting places like Chicago and New York was that those places were known to be “dark.” If a teenager stole a car or committed a petty crime, he was said to be acting “colored.” The only black men who were respected were athletes—Dave May of the Brewers, MacArthur Lane of the Packers. But even they were only acceptable in their prescribed public roles—as sports heroes removed from everyday life. And there were limits to the admiration. Many people, including Charlie, had been unhappy that spring when Hank Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s home run record.
That morning, several teachers gathered near the steps that led down to the playground. Miss Anderson was there, and Mr. Sealer, who taught fourth grade. Mrs. Hood, the first grade teacher, stood next to him, and one step above her was the kindergarten teacher, Miss Gandt. Because I usually stayed on a bench near the steps and didn’t wander out to the playground, I could hear their conversation, although they made no real effort to keep their voices down.
“. . . can’t believe it,” Mrs. Hood, the first grade teacher, was saying. She was a small woman in her forties who wore her blond hair in a bun and had a voice so high you thought she was pretending. “I know they’ve been telling us, but I never thought they’d actually go through with it.”
“I’ll tell you, if Janie had known that this would happen,” said Miss Gandt, the teacher from kindergarten, who was dark-haired and gruff, “she never would have taken the time off. She would have stayed in her class till the second she went into labor.”
“Fred says she’s all in knots about it,” said Mr. Sealer, the fourth grade teacher. He was in his 50s, with a paunch and very red cheeks, and he was known to keep a flask of whiskey in his desk. “This country’s going to hell and it’s happening fast. I told you that mess in Boston was going to affect us. It’s crazy—white children being bused into the ghetto, and those ghetto children let loose in white schools. The way things are going these days, with busing and all, it’s no surprise they’re letting niggers teach our children.”
Mrs. Hood nodded and leaned forward so that Mr. Sealer could light her cigarette. “Not to mention his wife’s going to be working at the clinic.”
“But at least we can avoid the clinic,” Miss Anderson said, sounding almost mournful. “With school, the parents don’t have a choice. What are we going to do about these poor children?”
“Well, couldn’t you do something, Penny?” Miss Gandt asked intently. “I mean, couldn’t you talk to Steven?”
There was a silence. Although Miss Anderson’s romance with Mr. Baker was general knowledge, it was rare that anyone referred to it so openly.
“He can’t do anything, really,” Miss Anderson said after a pause. “He’s been talking and talking about how we need a long-term sub, and then this teacher comes along out of the blue. He’s qualified—over-qualified even—he has a master’s degree besides his credential. There’s no way Steven could deny him without it looking like discrimination. I mean, if worse came to worst, there could even be a lawsuit.”
Mr. Sealer scoffed. “That degree’s probably not worth the paper it’s printed on, anyway. The female’s either. The schools are just giving diplomas away now, whether or not those people deserve it. I mean, who would ever trust a black nurse?”
“Exactly,” said Mrs. Hood, her voice more squeaky than usual. “And anyhow, it’s not discrimination to want to protect our way of life. We should be able to have some say about who our children are exposed to. Besides—what if more of them come? What if they have children? Before you know it, it could get as bad here as Milwaukee or Chicago.”
“You’re right, Gracie,” Miss Anderson said. “It’s about our way of life. We’re just thinking about what’s best for our children.”