Sunday, February 17, 2019

MMGM: The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

It's the summer of 1946 and in Birdsong, South Carolina, Gabriel Haberlin has just tuned 12 and received a brand new Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe for his birthday. Excited to test it out and show his friend Patrick, Gabe sets off not paying too much attention to a stoplight ahead of him that has just turned red, and it's too late for him to swerve out of the way of an oncoming car. Lucky for Gabe, someone pushes him out of way just in time.

That someone is Meriwether Hunter, a black man looking for work. Gabe, so grateful to him not just for saving his life, but for fixing his mangled bike on the spot, convinces his father, owner of a garage that is listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, to give Meriwether a job fixing cars. It seems Meriwether is a genius at fixing things. The only problem is that the other mechanic, Lucas Shaw, really doesn't like black people and rumor has it that he either belongs to the Ku Klux Klan or at least has friends who belong.

Gabe's mother has always thought of Birdsong as a "peaceful, pretty place" but that's because the Haberlins are white. For the black people living on "The Other Side," Birdsong is a segregated, potentially dangerous place, as Gabe discovers when he befriends Meriwether. And as they spend more time together, Gabe begins to look around him and see just how life really is for those living on The Other Side: his school so much better than the school the black children go to, he has access to the public library, while Meriwether's daughter Abigail, an avid reader at 10, can only use the makeshift library in her church, and Gabe begins to notice the large number of signs everywhere saying Whites Only, and the way white people refer to African American adult men as "boy" or "uncle" and women as "auntie," including his friend Patrick.

But a mystery surrounds just how Meriwether learned his excellent mechanical skills fixing cars, and why he refuses to answer when asked about it. When Gabe returns from Charleston after attending a July 4th parade honoring local servicemen who fought in WWII, including Gabe's Uncle Earl who was at the Battle of the Bulge, Meriwether's truth comes out. He, too, had fought in WWII as part of the all-black 761st Tank Battalion a/k/a the Black Panthers, had also been at the Battle of the Bulge, and had proven himself as a great mechanic throughout his service. Gabe learns not only are there no parades for African American veterans who served honorably in the war, in the south, they are also being advised not to let people know about their service so as not to bring harm to themselves or their family.

Everything comes to a head when a mysterious package shows up on Meriwether's doorstep putting the family in grave danger.

As I started reading, I thought it was interesting that Brenda Woods wrote this from a white boy's point of view. But as I kept reading, I realized that this story couldn't be told any other way. By looking at the injustice and inequality that African American were subjected to in the Jim Crow south through Gabe's awakening eyes, Woods was able to create a richly layered story.

Despite growing up in a home where he was taught to "treat all folks, regardless of color, with courtesy and respect. And be as good a person as you can be" (pg 50), Gabe's friendship with Meriwether that summer of 1946 is a real coming of age summer where the truth of injustice and inequality becomes an undeniable reality to him.

And through Gabe, Meriwether's story becomes all the more poignant and, for the reader, all the more informative. For example, the fact that Uncle Earl participates in a big parade celebrating the white veterans makes the lack of a parade for black veterans that much more painful for Meriwether. It really highlights how during the war American lives were in the same danger as the white soldiers, that they were fighting every bit as hard as them and that many fell in action as well, and yet they received not honors when they returned home accorded white soldiers, only threats to their lives.

Meriwether Hunter's story really shows how the war may have ended for the world, but another fight, the fight for justice and equality, continued for African American veterans.

Woods has written a novel that is both serious and often amusing, especially when Gabe gets together with his camera toting, slang using cousin Tink. And to underscore his coming of age, his crushes on a local girl and on Tink's liberal neighbor from NYC. I loved Meriwether's daughter Abigail, who was not afraid to speak her mind and I know in my heart of hearts that if these were real people, the future Gabe and Abigail would be out there in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement fighting for change.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

You can read an interesting article by Brenda Woods about The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA HERE

And if you would like more information about the treatment of African American veterans after WWII, the following may be helpful:

"More Likely to be Attacked Than Honored": Changing the Way We Remember Black Soldiers by Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr.,

The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Veterans by Peter C. Baker,

Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans from the Equal Justice Initiative

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.


  1. Wow! This sounds like it has many layers to think about.Thanks for featuring it.

  2. Sounds like a good companion to this year's CYBILS winner, THE PARKER INHERITANCE. I can see the power of having a white boy narrate. Thanks for the links to other sources, too.

  3. Thanks for sharing this title with us for MMGM. The cover art is unique and appealing.

  4. Thanks for your review. It sounds like an interesting story. Love the cover, too.

  5. My favorite kind of stories. This is a very compassionate family. I will be searching for this one. I only recently learned about the Green Books.

  6. Wonderful, thorough review. Thanks for that. I will check this book out. It sounds terrific. I just saw The Green Book this weekend and it was pretty profound.