Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

Review by Cori Van Housen

Elizabeth and Hazel is the true story of one moment in the lives of two young women that changed them, and history, forever. In fall of 1957, with 9 select black students enrolled, Central High School in Little Rock, AK, desegregated. Shy and bookish Elizabeth, for all her 15 years of growing up in the segregated south, had precious little idea of, and even less preparation for, the vitriol about to be unleashed as she did the unthinkable: simply walk to school. Outgoing Hazel, also 15, loved being the centre of attention. The camera’s eye caught Elizabeth walking stoically amid a jeering crowd while behind her, Hazel shouted angry epithets.

Margolick has not so much written a story as an anthology, compiling snippets from the many lives and events tangential to the photograph. In doing so, he uniquely explores desegregation, its impact on individuals, community, and country; effectively challenging any simplistic view of racism or its solutions. Moving out from the vortex surrounding Elizabeth, Margolick captures the many-faceted nature of the problem. One must sympathize with Elizabeth, ill-suited for the role of groundbreaker. She ultimately emerges from Central High shell-shocked, unable to move past her experiences. Hazel, on the other hand, garners little initial sympathy but experiences great growth in subsequent years.

The relationship which eventually forms between Hazel and Elizabeth serves to illustrate the difficulties of race relations, where good intentions aren’t always enough, trust is hard-won (and hard to maintain), and a residue of resentment and bad feelings is left on both sides of the equation. Summing up for Hazel at one point, the author writes, “Whites weren’t ready for desegregation in 1957, and blacks weren’t ready for reconciliation now.” For the most part, Margolick does not venture conclusions; he relates the facts in a tidy, journalistic staccato. He does not tell us what to think. Instead, he gives us a fascinating read, an interweaving of tensions and cross-currents of conflict: people at odds with each other, and even within themselves.

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