Four Spirits, unwavering in intent but wavering in execution, fulfills not so much an ambitious promise as it fleshes out an admirable premise.
As a college student in the early 1960s in Birmingham, Ala., Sena Jeter Naslund pledged to herself that, if she ever became a novelist, she would someday write about the turbulent fight for civil rights in her changing city. In describing the acts of courage and tragedy in a racially torn setting, Naslund "would try to re-create through words what it was like to be alive then: how ordinary life went on, how people fell in and out of love, how family members got sick, how people worked ordinary jobs, tried to get an education, worshipped, looked for entertainment, grew up, died, participated in the great changes of the civil rights struggle or stood aside and watched the world change."
As Naslund notes, it took nearly 40 years and the publication of five earlier works to give her the confidence to "try to tell the civil rights story as I have lived it, observed it, heard stories and read about it." A big stepping stone in self-assurance was the considerable critical and commercial success of Ahab's Wife in 1999. Not just a call-me-Melville companion to Moby Dick, this richly rewarding historical adventure constitutes not only one woman's spiritual journey but also shines a light upon early 19th-century American society and its literary heritage.
In making the century-long leap from bildungsroman to Bull Conner, Naslund — though believing that, like in Ahab's Wife, "triumph can be wrung out of tragedy" — has the same questioning and justifiably critical stance toward American traditions, gender issues and race policy. Yet while narrowing her range from epic sweep to episodic assortment, she aims for a kaleidoscopic one-book-fits-all effect that too often becomes meandering and unstructured clutter.
Naslund tries to be inclusive and incisive when dealing with the complexity of forces that make up the "separate but equal" Deep South and infuse the volatility of race relations as they existed from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. While touching upon the troubles and troublemakers that live and die in Dixie, Four Spirits presents vignettes and traces the accounts of a wide variety of protagonists and antagonists — black and white, conservative and liberal, outsiders and locals — who make up the patchwork panorama of "Bombingham" society less than a year before the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.