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The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis by Elle Thornton
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bookshelves: 2013, 20th-century, 1950s, 21st-century, adolescence, courage, emmett-till, family, family-separation, fathers-and-daughters, korean-war, marine-corp, military, north-carolina, race-relations, racism, southern-literature, tolerance, young-adult, elle-thornton
Recommended to Lawyer by: Author Elle Thornton
Recommended for: Anyone

The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis: Elle Thornton's Novel Keeping the Spirit of Emmett Till Alive

DO YOU KNOW THIS YOUNG MAN?

 photo Emmett-Till-507515-1-402.jpg

I did not. Not until college. I grew up in a segregated South. The only blacks I knew were the housekeepers who helped raise me. They were the most important women in my life aside from my Mother and Grandmother. I was taught to call them "Ma'am."

This young man is Emmett Till. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, July 21, 1941, the son of Mamie and Louis Till. In the summer of 1955, he visited relatives in the small town of Money, Mississippi. On August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two white men, kidnapped young Emmett Till from his great Uncle's house, beat and shot him to death, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River weighted down with a cotton gin fan motor tied to his neck with barbed wire. The reason? Emmett Till allegedly whistled at Roy's wife Carolyn at their Bryant Grocery.

 photo BryantGrocery.jpg
Scene of the infamous wolf whistle

As most criminals, Bryant and Milam didn't know that it would take a substantially greater weight to keep a body submerged. Three days later, Emmett Till's unrecognizable body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.

Mamie Till made a startling and bold decision. She had her son's body shipped home to Chicago and insisted on an open casket ceremony. Over fifty thousand Chicago residents paid their respects to Emmett Till and his family.

Mamie Till did not stop with the open casket ceremony. She allowed Jet Magazine to cover the story of her son's murder, including photographs of the decomposed face of her young son in their magazine. The story and the shocking photographs appeared in the September 15, 1955, issue of Jet. And it was a story that shocked and horrified a nation.

A spoiler alert is posted here because of the graphic nature of the photographs hidden herein. (view spoiler)

The injustice of the murder of Emmett Till continued. Bryant and Milam were tried for Emmett Till's murder. They were acquitted.

 photo RoyandJW.jpg
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam on trial

Subsequently Alabama author William Bradford Huie interviewed the killers. They brazenly admitted their crime. Double Jeopardy prevented retrial for their heinous offense. At that time no such thing as a Federal 1983 Action for Violation of the Civil Rights of an Individual existed. These two killers got away with murder to brag about it.

 photo LookMagazine_zps8176dd9a.jpg
Look Magazine, January 24, 1956

The Significance of the Story of Emmett Till

Every movement has its martyrs. The Civil Rights Movement has many. However, the murder of Emmett Till was the flashpoint of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955.  photo Rosaparks_zps308f9af7.jpg
Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1955

 photo GreensboroFour_zps2fdffa89.jpg
Woolworth's, Greensboro, North Carolina, February 1, 1960

Would it have happened but for the murder of Emmett Till?

The Significance of Elle Thornton's Novel

Today it is amazing that the story of Emmett Till has faded from memory. Howard University Students studying the Greensboro Four indicated that the class did not address that the motivation of that initial confrontation came about as a result of the acquittal of Emmett Till's killers. One student, bemoaning the fact that black american students did not know about Emmett Till authored a play, "Mississippi Mourning," to raise awareness. The play celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the famed sit-in at that Woolworth's lunch counter.

Two weeks prior to the play's premier, the writer and other members of the cast began receiving threats--death threats. The murder of Emmett Till remains a national shame that some would rather remain buried in the past.

Comparisons between the Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till resulted in thousands of Tweets asking "Who is Emmett Till?"

The latest controversy surrounds Pepsi severing its relationship with rapper Lil Wayne over his inflammatory remarks regarding Emmett Till's "beat that pussy." Lil Wayne has suffered the condemnation of numerous black musicians and surviving members of Emmett Tills family. Wayne's apology to the Till family has not been accepted as not being sincere.

The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis keeps the story of Emmett Till alive. Elle Thornton has written a novel that accomplishes its task with memorable characters, a quickly moving plot, and a painfully accurate portrait of prejudice and intolerance in the South of 1957.

This is an important book. It is written for the young adult audience, an audience that has not yet been exposed to novels such as Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden or Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan. Yet, it stands on the same level as those two novels, because of the unique perspective of its protagonist Gabriella Winter, a young girl, twelve going on thirteen, who has an eye for what is fair, right, and just.

The Story

It is summer, 1957. Gabriella Winter has returned from St. Agatha's Boarding School to a Marine Corp base in North Carolina. Her father is the Commanding General. Gabriella should be the Queen Bee of the base. However, her mother, Maria is not on station. There is no flock of Officers' wives making the Winter household the center of social activity. Rather, Gabriella is the object of other Officers' daughters' hand me downs.

The absence of Mrs. General Winter leads Gabriella's father to have Hawkins, a black Marine, assigned to the family as a steward. Hawkins face is scarred. The Korean Conflict Combat ribbons on his Dress Blues account for the General's trust and respect for this man. Hawkins will become Gabriella's friend and guardian angel.

Throughout the novel, Thornton weaves the story of Emmett Till, whose story Gabriella has learned only a part at her Boarding School. Gabriella will face racism in forms subtle to outrageously alert.

At the Officer's Club Pool the appearance of a lithe, muscular, black Officer clears the pool as quickly as if the lifeguard had announced an approaching thunderstorm. Two white officers laugh over the ignorance of "that Emmett Till boy" who didn't know any better than to flirt with a white woman.

Gabriella asks her father if he has heard the name Emmett Till. The General resoundingly tells her she is too young to know the brutality of the world, that she is too young to even understand it.

Much to the General's surprise, Gabriella responds, "I'm too old to be as ignorant as I am." The General softens.

"Nowadays in the Marines, all men, whether they are colored or white, live, train, and fight together. They die together fighting the enemy. Remember that, Gabriella."


As summer passes, Hawkins will teach Gabriella to swim. Gabriella will learn the full story of the injustice of Emmett Till's murder from Doyle, a boy slightly older than her, who will tell her of Emmett's murderers' acquittal.

Has it not always been the case that times change as a result of the manner in which the world is perceived through the eyes of the young? Doyle is learning the Blues from other black Stewards on the base. His first song is the Willie Brown classic from 1926, "Dirty and Ragged." Bob Dylan later covered Brown's classic updating the lyrics. But this small vignette is a hopeful sign that the times are indeed a' changin'.

But not changed. Gabriella sits with Eula Mae Perkins, the aged mother of Colonel Perkins. Eula Mae whispers of Jonas and Star. Eula Mae tells her that Jonas was her black play companion in her youth. Star was the pony they rode. The Colonel insists to Gabriella that his mother has an overactive imagination and she is not to speak of his mother's stories outside the house.

Believing her mother to be in the town across the river from the base, Gabriella borrows a rowboat. She crosses the river. She observes black children swimming and playing in the distance. She considers that the spirit of Emmett Till watches over them all. To her, she is on a quest for a hidden place as mysterious as Atlantis.

Gabriella does find her mother. However, I will not tell you her precise whereabouts or the reason for her presence there. Read the book. Actually the Mantra for each paragraph of this review should be READ THE BOOK.

Returning to the riverbank, Gabriella discovers the rowboat has drifted away. She is stranded and lost. She finds herself at Sharky's, a black juke joint, seafood and barbecue shack. Sharky is nobody's fool. No white girl has business being in his place in the day time much less at night. He parks Gabriella at a table in the kitchen, surrounds her with crab cakes, french fries, and other delicacies, telling her he'll call someone to pick her up.

Obviously, Gabriella and Hawkins' reputation have preceded them. It's Hawkins that shows up to take his charge back to base. The wail of a siren and flashing lights cause Hawkins to pull over. A North Carolina Sheriff catching a black man with a white girl in his car after dark is a prime reason to make a stop.

This time it's Gabriella who rescues Hawkins. Identifying herself as the Generals daughter, she tells the Sheriff Hawkins is her father's most trusted aide. The Sheriff eyeing the combat ribbons and medals on Hawkins' uniform jacket hanging at the window in the back seat let's them go about their way.

The encounter causes Gabriella to realize that her friendship with Hawkins endangers him, perhaps even more than Emmett's ill-fated whistle. As the summer wanes Gabriella continues to think of Emmett, thinking of his smiling face, his mischievous eyes.

The novel culminates in a spiritual meeting between Gabriella and Emmett. READ THE BOOK.

Gabriella wants to stay with EMMETT. READ THE BOOK.

Emmett tells Gabriella she must give to others on earth. READ THE BOOK.

Gabriella realizes Hawkins is the man Emmett might have grown up to be. I couldn't agree more.

The Long Journey of The Girl Who Swam To Atlantis

I first became acquainted with Elle Thornton as a member of goodreads group "On the Southern Literary Trail." I founded the group in February, 2012. Recently, in an effort to give new voices in Southern Literature an opportunity to find a venue for their work, I broadcast a message to all authors offering them the opportunity to offer copies of their work to group members in monthly giveaways. Elle Thornton was our second giveaway author.

Elle Thornton was awarded the Florida Writers Association for Young Adult Fiction in Prepublication Form in 2009. Elle obtained a literary agent. The book was shopped to six major publishing houses. Random House was a near deal. But it was not to be.

Although Elle and I have not personally met, nor talked on the phone, we have communicated a great deal about this book by what some call e-mail. I prefer to still call them letters. Letter writing is a dying art. Between tweets, texts, and shot e-mails, many are losing the ability to communicate via paper, be it electronic, or pulp. Elle is another of those who has not lost the art of letter writing.

Not only does she write a beautiful letter, she wrote a beautiful and lyrical book. I frequently become frustrated at publishing houses whose primary interest is only putting before the public what sells. Well, of course, I realize money is what makes the world go around.

The point remains that books never reach the public for fear the subject matter won't sell. I've given a great deal of thought to Elle Thornton's novel. I've given a great deal of thought to what sells in the field of Y/A literature today. These are the conclusions I have have reached. John Green is a Y/A God. It seems to me that Y/A has become a genre of what's happening now. Is it new. Is it relevant? Don't get me wrong. I like Green. I like Jay Asher. Each of their subject matters needs to be addressed. However, issues raised in novels such as Elle Thornton's do as well.

Anyone who thinks racism in this country is dead is a fool. In some ways it has become more subtle. In other ways, it is treated as matters deserving of legislation. Are not strict immigration laws a form of racism? Aren't we scared of any person with a middle eastern appearance? And how politely we hide our heads on questions of gender identity.

Keeping the spirit of Emmett Till alive today remains as important as it was during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Don't think there are those who still have no need for Civil Rights.

I admire authors who throw themselves into a work, play by all the rules, go through the hoops of Publishing Houses and face rejection. I admire those who have the courage to edit and re-edit and publish their own works.

I have read many a book published by a major publishing house I didn't even shelve. However, it sold, by God. The Folks who put out the Fifty Shades trilogy should be real proud of themselves.

The Folks who turned down a thoughtful Y/A novel must not think today's kids are as smart as they are. Of course, our schools are all aflutter over testing scores. It the question ain't on the test, it doesn't need to be taught, right?

This is a book teachers should read. Particularly school librarians should read it. This is a book that should be on every junior high school and high school library shelf.

One last thought. If Hawkins is the man Emmett Till might have grown up to be, perhaps Gabriella Winter grew up to be Elle Thornton.

Soundtrack and References

Precious Lord Take My Hand http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as1rsZ...

The Ballad of Emmett Till http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ_ZnG...

We Shall Over Come, Speech by MLK, Jr. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as1rsZ...

The Murder of Emmett Till, American Experience, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9E7aW...

The Untold Story of Emmett Till http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=r9E7aWLq30Y

Rosa Parks, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15p5HB...

The Greensboro Four http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xbbcjn...

We Shall Overcome, Mahalia Jackson, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmR1Yv...

Update: May 20, 2013: also posted by the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Emmett...
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 2, 2013 – Shelved
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: 2013
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: 20th-century
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: 1950s
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: 21st-century
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: adolescence
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: courage
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: emmett-till
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: family
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: family-separation
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: fathers-and-daughters
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: korean-war
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: marine-corp
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: military
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: north-carolina
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: race-relations
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: racism
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: southern-literature
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: tolerance
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: young-adult
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: elle-thornton

Comments Showing 1-25 of 25 (25 new)

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message 1: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Born in 1941, was it 1955 that he visited Mississippi? (second sentence.) Look forward to the continuation of this important story.
Cheers, Cynthia


Lawyer Cynthia, absolutely right. I've been saving drafts like mad as I have been losing reviews posted from the goodreads site. I am reluctant to use the more cautious cut and paste from a word processing document because of my extensive Internet references and HTML CODES. I'll be sure to correct the error. Needless to say, I highly recommend Thornton's novel. Thanks!


message 3: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Losing reviews! Say it is not so! I hope this is not because of Goodreads being bought by Amazon. YIKES.


message 4: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Great stuff as always Mike. The story of Emmett Till would be known if we taught history in this country. Regardless there are going to be more people who become acquainted with Emmett Till after they read your review. I didn't know that about Lil Wayne another reason for me to think he is just a punk.


message 5: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Thanks for a great and very informative review, Mike. Not sure when I first learned of Emmett Till. Maybe from Bob Dylan or MLK, possibly in high school civics. It is sad that teaching now is all to the tests. Too much is being lost.

I definitely want to read this book.


message 6: by Elle (last edited May 15, 2013 05:08PM) (new)

Elle Thornton Jeffrey, Sue & Chelsea, thanks so much for your comments. I love this discussion group b/c I always learn so much from the observations/comments, not to mention reviews like Mike's.
Sue & Chelsea, I will be honored to have you read the book!
Elle


Lawyer Jeffrey wrote: "Great stuff as always Mike. The story of Emmett Till would be known if we taught history in this country. Regardless there are going to be more people who become acquainted with Emmett Till after ..."

Thanks, Jeff. This one was a pleasure to write. Elle Thornton was a pleasure to read.


Lawyer Sue wrote: "Thanks for a great and very informative review, Mike. Not sure when I first learned of Emmett Till. Maybe from Bob Dylan or MLK, possibly in high school civics. It is sad that teaching now is all t..."

Sue, Thank you for taking the time to read the review. Through working with authors on "The Trail," I'm realizing how hard they work and the high risk of rejection they run. I remain committed to inviting authors to present their work to our group.

I echo Jeff's comment's about "if history were taught in schools." There's a basic flaw in the system when education consists of a curriculum of practicing to take a test that evaluates performance of educators and not that of the students.


Lawyer Chelsea wrote: "Tell it like it is, Mr. Sullivan. BRAVO and a standing ovation!!!! And I shall READ THE BOOK.

Louder, louder......"


Thanks, Chelsea. Either I got out on the wrong side of the bed or my boxers were too tight, but I did tell it as I thought it was. *laughing* I do highly recommend this book. And in the words of our politicos, I ENDORSE THIS MESSAGE. *grin*


Lawyer Elle wrote: "Jeffrey, Sue & Chelsea, thanks so much for your comments. I love this discussion group b/c I always learn so much from the observations/comments, not to mention reviews like Mike's.
Sue & Chelsea, ..."


Elle, my regards on a job exceedingly well done. Carry it on. Carry it on.


message 11: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Chelsea wrote: "but I did tell it as I thought it was

Yessiree, Mr. Sullivan, you surely did. And it's a message that needs to be told again and again and again.

Thank you."


So true Chelsea!!!


message 12: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Fineisen Mike, once again you have generously given us your thoughtful research and perspective.


message 13: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Thanks Mike. Sharing on Facebook, if you don't mind.


Lawyer Cynthia, feel free to share. Thanks for thinking Emmett's story and Elle's novel need to be shared.


message 15: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen It certainly does. Have a great day, and thanks for your careful words and kind heart.


message 16: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Fineisen So timely. And your review...so much to it. I have been having a discussion on Facebook with some parent friends about this very thing, and the lack of education we had even when we were being bussed in the 70's. Unless you choose to take an interest in civil rights, you would never recognize that young man's boyish smile or know his story. And Till is just one of many. A great review and a great group, Mike! Thanks.


Lawyer Heather wrote: "So timely. And your review...so much to it. I have been having a discussion on Facebook with some parent friends about this very thing, and the lack of education we had even when we were being buss..."

Heather, my sincere thanks for your writing and commenting. This book, its author, Emmett's story, forever have a place in my heart. My feelings about the importance of this novel being on school shelves remain the same. I am especially pleased that our group will revisit Emmett's story this next month with Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan.


Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽ Wonderful review, Mike. Thanks for the food for thought.


Lawyer Tadiana wrote: "Wonderful review, Mike. Thanks for the food for thought."

Tadiana, thank you for weighing in on this one. It's a special little novel deserving of greater attention. I highly recommend it for the YA crowd, and for parents who think their children should be aware of this important story. Teachers should find it an especially helpful learning aid. I always enjoy touching base with you.


message 20: by Elle (new)

Elle Thornton Hi Mike, I am very glad that you wrote so passionately about Emmett Till in your review of The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis. I believe your powerful and moving words will continue touching hearts and minds. I hope readers will find their way to the book as a result.
Elle


Richard Today is the 60th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till.


message 22: by Elle (new)

Elle Thornton Please remember Emmett Till, who had barely turned fourteen when he was savagely beaten and shot by racist murderers on Aug. 28, 1955, his body pushed into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Despite the torture he endured, Emmett refused to say what the murderers wanted him to say: that he wasn't as good as them. This is documented by William Bradford Huie in his Look Magazine interview of the murderers (Jan. 24, 1956). From talking to young people, I have learned that many still do not know Emmett's name. I believe his story needs to be told in grade schools. Though he has parted from us, Emmett's spirit lives on: his death helped spark the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks, the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, said she was thinking of Emmett when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala, on December 1 of 1955.


message 23: by Elle (new)

Elle Thornton There's an excellent article shedding new light on the Emmett Till story by historian M.J. (Mike) O'Brien. O'Brian interviewed one of the members of the grand jury who indicted Ray Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant for Emmett's murder. See http://blog.notbemoved.com/post/12781...


Lawyer Elle wrote: "There's an excellent article shedding new light on the Emmett Till story by historian M.J. (Mike) O'Brien. O'Brian interviewed one of the members of the grand jury who indicted Ray Milam and his ha..."

Thanks much, Elle. Hope all is well.


message 25: by Elle (new)

Elle Thornton Hi Mike, it's good to hear from you. I've finished a first readable draft of my YA mystery. I still have work to do on it. I haven't forgotten your generous offer to take a look when it's ready.


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