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Adding Salt to "Class" Literature: Barbara O'Connor's Books for Young Readers

By Stephanie Jones

Salt of the earth people. That’s what I’ve heard folks call the kind of people reflected in O’Connor’s characters: salt of the earth. The phrase originated in the Bible, but it has become a secular catch phrase for working people who do not have control over their means of production and are providing taste and moral preservation in their own ways—people like Martin’s family and friends. In a society where the cleanliness of one’s workplace and one’s income level shape a skewed perception of intelligence, abilities, and ambitions, working-class folks are rarely “gotten right” in literature. They are more often exoticized as admired rebels or pathologized as bumbling idiots. Dorothy Allison, acclaimed novelist and essayist, reflecting on her childhood in a poor, white family in the rural South, wrote, “I had been a child who believed in books, but I had never really found me or mine in print. My family was always made over into caricatures or flattened into saintlike stock creatures. . . . Outside my mother’s stubbornness and my own outraged arrogance, I had never found any reason to believe in myself” (1988).

This continues to be a problem in books for younger readers; working-class and poor lives are often caricatured, pitied, or simply nonexistent. O’Connor is part of a solution, providing enough portraits of diverse characters living rich, complex, nuanced working-class and economically strained lives that readers have many opportunities to recognize parts of themselves or people they know.

O’Connor, with a keen sense of language and setting, produces intricately woven stories that place working-class and poor lives front and center. Her books are not stories about class struggle, poverty, homelessness, strict gender roles, food scarcity, work, extended families, disabilities, and orphans. They are stories about children, adolescents, and adults figuring out life as they move through it. Universal themes, one might say, set in richly textured relationships, homes, and communities that are not typical of books written for a younger audience (2nd through 6th grades). Her beautifully written narratives present tattooed motorcycle riders as gentle and respectable, outspoken smoking grandmothers as proud and self-sufficient, aluminum-can-collecting fathers as dedicated and predictable, and “broken” families as places where people can and do flourish.

In Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia, O’Connor introduces one of many of her strong and perceptive girl characters, Bird. Bird describes the new kid in town:

Harlem Tate hadn’t been in Freedom, Georgia, more than three days before it was clear that nobody wanted anything to do with him. Nobody except me, that is. I had a burning desire to be his friend. All everybody else saw in him was a silent, glaring kid who didn’t smell too good. Me? I could tell by his scowling face that Harlem Tate didn’t get many chances to see the good in folks. Like me. And something about his hunched-over way of walking told me Harlem Tate’s insides were churning up with needing something. Like mine.

Never shying away from controversy among characters, O’Connor uses dialogue to get to the heart of matters. For example, when Mrs. Eula Thatcher learns that Harlem Tate is living with Mr. Moody, she “. . . let[s] out a big ‘Pffft’ that sen[ds] spit and gravy flying every which way. ‘What’s he living with that sorry sack of misery for?’” Readers learn that for Harlem Tate, who “didn’t get many chances to see the good in folks,” such insults are pulled in, kept quiet, and added to the mountains of evidence that society treats some folks well and other folks a whole lot less than well. In the end, those put-downs and doubting comments don’t keep Bird or Harlem from finding fame and glory in Freedom, Ga.

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