Book review: Ivester’s memoir examines life in the 1960s deep South
July 17, 2015
“The Outskirts of Hope: A Memoir of the 1960s Deep South,” by Jo Ivester
Jo Ivester's thoughtful, timely memoir explores how a Jewish family from Boston became foot soldiers in Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty and allies in the Civil Rights Movement.
Building on her mother, Aura Kruger's, journals and her own recollections, Ivester recounts the two years (1967 to 1968) her family spent during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in an all-black town in the Mississippi Delta.
Mound Bayou, Mississippi, was founded in 1887 as a self-segregated community and haven from the Jim Crow laws, which formed the legal framework for a racial caste system in many states in the southern United States.
In 1967, when racial segregation was still encoded in Mississippi law, Leon Kruger moved his family from Boston to Mound Bayou to open a medical clinic to serve the poor population in town and the surrounding rural area. Ivester was 10 years old and excited by the adventure of moving to a new town. Her mother, Aura, was more anxious. She relocated her family to Mound Bayou in order to support her husband and, in her own words, to be a "good wife." While remaining outwardly stoical, she worried that, as white northerners, she and her family would be unwelcome in Mound Bayou.
Yet Aura quickly realized she, too, could make a difference in town and became an English teacher in the public high school. With passion and care, she taught her students Shakespeare and poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. She challenged her students to reflect and think critically, and she encouraged them to be activists.
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One of the most powerful elements of the story is Kruger's transformation during her time in Mound Bayou. Ivester gracefully summarizes this in the acknowledgements of her book: "Devoted to teaching for over 20 years, (Aura) labored ceaselessly to help her students achieve their potential. In so doing, she achieved her own, in the process gaining independence and self-confidence."
Readers of "The Outskirts of Hope" will appreciate this perspective on the Civil Rights Movement. This is a ground-level story of social activism in the Mississippi Delta that provides small but critical details: Readers learn about parents' fears of retaliation from the KKK if their students read writings by Malcolm X and also the collective anguish one small town felt following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Fifty years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, there is still much work to be done by activists, educators and lawmakers — all of us — to dismantle hatred and inequality in the U.S. It is critical to look to the past to remind us how far we've come, but also to instruct us on how to proceed in the future. "The Outskirts of Hope" is a beautiful reflection of the past and a shining reminder of the power of education and grassroots activism to create a more just world in the future.
Ivester is a part-time resident of Steamboat Springs. Off the Beaten Path is pleased to host her as a special guest at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Emily Katzman is assistant manager of Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.