Sometimes the best stories are those that have a relatively simple narrative.
The storyline of “The Outskirts of Hope: A Memoir of the 1960s Deep South” (She Writes Press, 2015) by Jo Ivester is simple indeed: A white Jewish doctor from a suburb of Boston moves his family to rural Mississippi in the 1960s to start a much-needed medical clinic.
How the family – the doctor, his wife and their three young children, including Jo – interact with the local black population and the events that eventually force them to leave Mississippi provide the framework for the inspiring true story Ivester shares.
The autobiography is based on journals written by Ivester and her mother, Aura Kruger, during the two years they lived in the tiny town of Mound Bayou, Miss. Like all good memoirs, the anecdotes are complex. Some of the people of Mound Bayou resent the Krugers’ moving to their town, for example, and some never get over their suspicions. The oldest Kruger boy enjoyed living in Mound Bayou, but he had to transfer to a school out of state when his interest in dating local girls infuriated the hometown boys.
What interested me most about “The Outskirts of Hope” were the racial attitudes of the times. Many times, people were conscious of how the local Ku Klux Klan would interpret activities in Mound Bayou, and this introduced an element of fear in the local populace. Sometimes racism worked in the town’s favor, as when the neighboring town – comprising mostly white residents – built a public swimming pool and, fearing that residents of Mound Bayou would want to use that pool, funded the construction of a new pool for their neighbors.
Another compelling aspect of the book is its portrayal of the change that came over the author’s mother while living in Mississippi. Aura arrived in town wanting only to be a stay-at-home mother to her children. But seeing a great need in town for a teacher at the public school, her husband convinced her to teach English. Aura became a popular and beloved teacher in her short tenure, but also something of a rabble-rouser, bringing controversial books such as Malcolm X’s autobiography into the classroom. Her stint in the classroom was the beginning of a long teaching career for Aura. It is very special that Ivester uses Aura’s journals – her own words – to tell her story.
Ivester also has an important story to tell: She used her journals as well to document her thoughts and feelings as a 10-year-old girl undergoing the major transition from life in a comfortable suburb to living in a trailer surrounded by mud in one of the poorest regions of the country. And tragedy strikes Ivester during her stay in Mound Bayou when some local boys physically hurt her, forcing the family to leave town to prevent the Klan from burning it to the ground.
I’m sure that there are longer, more exhausting studies of life in the rural South in the 1960s, but this rather short book tells a lovely, personal story that is the best I have read on the subject.
Book clubs that focus on biographies and historical novels should pick up a copy of “The Outskirts of Hope,” as should those who enjoyed “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (Broadway Books, 2011) by Rebecca Skloot.
Leslie Ashmore is a Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.