A Book for All Ages: "William Henry Is a Fine Name"
- Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I remember the day the church at the end of our street installed a basketball hoop and net in their parking lot. It was a grand day for the kids in the neighborhood. We rushed through dinner and ran to the church, dribbling our basketball and shooting hoops until dark. None of us were very good players, but it was great fun.
Pretty soon an African American boy who lived across the street and beyond the field joined us. Joe (not his real name) was a great basketball player! He’d rarely miss a shot and taught us what he knew. That his skin was black made no difference to us. We were excited to have a new friend, were curious about his life beyond the field – it looked like a farm from far away – and of course, we all wanted him on our team.
After the third night my mother received a phone call from a “concerned parent” who lived near the church. She’d seen my mother’s “white daughter” playing with “that colored boy” and wanted to advise her. She was certain my mother would never allow such a thing if she had knowledge of it. My mother assured her we were all just playing basketball, but the woman made our game sound dirty, and told my mother that if she didn’t call a stop to it her children would not be allowed to play with my brother or me. The woman was certain the other mothers in the neighborhood would feel the same.
That was the last night of basketball in the church parking lot for a long time – the last night I ever played there. I was livid, my brother was livid, and our mother distraught – caught in the middle. We all knew it was unjust, unfair and small-minded. Even as children, we understood that.
The few times I saw Joe later, before he moved away, he never raised his eyes to mine. He acted as though he didn’t know me. For three glorious nights we’d all been innocents and Joe had had a place to shine and share his gifts among new friends. That was ripped away from him as surely as if he’d been yanked on a chain. We lost so much more than basketball that night.
I’ve often wondered if Joe remembers that time, or if it was just one in such a long line of injustices that he’s forgotten. I’ve always wished I could have done something better in that situation. Now, by God’s grace, I can.
I love the way you weave amazing description and beautiful writing into a story with lots of drama and action. My boys were mesmerized by the action. I was mesmerized by the cadence of your words. How did you do it?
You are so generous, Paula. I love the beauty of language and celebrate that in the things I read – poetry and prose. I love the rhythm of words and the way they fit together. Reading aloud and performing my work helps tremendously. I love a good story. I remember being young and exploring old houses, searching dead tree stumps, scratching at the base of gravestones, desperately wishing an exciting mystery might pop up for me to solve. Writing provides just the opportunity for that sort of drama and action. It’s great fun to write something, then whistle, and shout, “Whoa! That could’ve happened!”
What was your favorite scene in this book and why?
Ouch. That feels a little like choosing one child over another. I especially love the scenes where William Henry and Robert are together. My favorites among those include the opening scene at the fishing hole, where they’ve escaped their mothers and outwitted Jake Tulley all in one fine day; the time they skunk the Tulley’s dogs so the dogs can’t track Robert’s father, Mr. Heath or the slaves they are helping to escape; the urgent meeting late one night on the porch when William Henry returns Robert’s lost watch, entrusts Robert with the significance of his name, and says more than his friend can understand at the time.
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