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Sena Jeter Naslund and Growing Up in the Segregated South

Four Spirits, a novel by Birmingham native Sena Jeter Naslund based on the aftermath of the1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, made its world premiere as a theatrical production at the University of Alabama--Huntsville this past weekend. The stage play was the result of a collaboration between Naslund and her friend and colleague Dr. Elaine Hughes of Montevallo University. Four Spirits opened on Thursday, February 7, and ran through February 10.

In an on-line interview Naslund discussed the emotional difficulty of writing a book like Four Spirits. “Four Spirits was certainly a painful book to write,” says Naslund. “The research was painful in itself because I discovered a number of atrocities that I had not been aware of when I was young -- the castration of Judge Aaron, for example. I did participate to some extent in the civil rights struggle, but looking back, of course I wish I had done more. In a way, writing this book is an attempt ‘to do more.’ It also fulfills the promise I made to myself almost forty years ago -- that if I ever did become a writer, I would write about those times. Ultimately the civil rights movement is a triumphant story: though the transformation is not complete, I feel we live in a more just society now. Some of the pain of that time is partially mitigated by writing, also, about the courage, kindness, and love that existed then.”

In his review of the novel Four Spirits, Will Blythe of the New York Times observes that by “cutting back and forth from one character to another, she (Naslund) achieves what might be called six degrees of integration – a panoramic and even mysterious view of the way diverse citizens immersed in their daily struggles affect one another.” Blythe goes on to comment that “All of the characters here, white and black, are profoundly influenced by three actual events: the demonstrations of May 1963, when Sheriff Bull Connor turned police dogs and fire hoses on the predominantly black protesters; the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September of the same year; and the assassination of President Kennedy that November.” He praises Naslund’s “fine feel for the nearly inaudible drama of the psyche” saying “it is as if Virginia Woolf went down to Birmingham to cover the civil rights struggle for The Bloomsbury Times.”

When Karen Middleton of the Athens News Courier (Athens, Alabama) spoke with Naslund about the premiere of Four Spirits, Naslund said “This story meant a great deal to me. The bombing was a turning point in my own orientation in the civil rights movement. These were children, so totally innocent, getting ready to go to youth worship. Something was radically wrong when four children die because of racism in our society.”

Middleton also asked Dan Williams, mayor of Athens, about the impact of bombing on his life. “I was raised a typical white southern boy,” said Williams. “I kind of just watched the civil rights struggle from the sidelines. But that, the bombing, affected me so deeply, that four little girls could be killed so senselessly.”

Sena Jeter Naslund, whose best selling novels include Ahab’s Wife, Sherlock in Love, and Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette was the winner of the Harper Lee Award. She was named Alabama Writer of the Year in 2001, and she was chosen Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2005-2007. Naslund is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville, program director of the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in writing in Louisville, and in 2003 she was the Vacca Professor at the University of Montevallo, Alabama. This spring Naslund will be the Eminent Scholar in Humanities at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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