The Future of Our Past, a guest post by Lesa Cline-Ransome
My fascination with dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature did not begin at the start of the Pandemic in March 2019. It didn’t start in 2015 with an escalator and the launch of a political campaign branded by red hats and rallies. And it absolutely didn’t begin with a September attack in 2001 and “weapons of mass destruction,” and seemingly never-ending wars across the globe.
Any of these moments could have had me clinging to books for clues on how to navigate a future where one virus, one rogue election, one technological glitch had upended social order and reversed all advances in technology, civil rights, gender equality and democracy.
But my fascination with the future and the pages and pages I have read of ruined worlds and lawless societies and attempts at creating idyllic communities at the expense of individual freedoms, started with the past. It began with looking at stories from history through my own lens and seeing a world much different from the ones discussed in the classrooms, and seen in textbooks, movies and television screens of my youth.
There seems like an awfully long distance between the past and future and yet, whether it is 1940 or 2040, the questions I continue to find most intriguing are timeless. Who are we in the worst of times? What does it mean to survive? And, What do we want our world to look like?
These questions formed the foundation of my debut young adult novel For Lamb. As I began my research at the Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama back in 2018, I made my way through a largely ignored part of American history. Over 4,440 blacks were lynched in our nation’s history between 1877 and 1950, 173 of them women, and yet, it remains our country’s collective secret, kept from history books, ignored in classrooms.
I walked among hanging metal columns, symbolizing the black people victimized by white mob violence. Stories emerged of men and women lynched for stealing a ham, laughing at the wrong time, refusing employment, being too slow to remove a hat, using boastful language, being too successful, not being successful enough, and throughout my visit, and long after I returned home, I asked myself. How? How could communities survive the constant threats? The fear and degradation?
But, as my research continued, I discovered other stories. Within all the stories of fear, I found as many stories of fearlessness. Within the accounts of flight, there were just as many of fight. By using every resource at hand to ensure a better life for themselves and future generations, black people, who were under constant threat of violence and intimidation worked together. They built community. They migrated. They stayed. They fought back. They dreamed. They lived to see another day. They kept secrets. This was how they survived.
In For Lamb, we see the title character, 16-year old Lamb Clark and her family, living, loving, and navigating their way through Jim Crow Mississippi. Her brother Simeon, a brilliant high school senior, is making plans to go north to college where a scholarship awaits. Yet he is impatient for change coming too slowly to his community; their mother Marion, is shaped by her knowledge of the past, and worried about the future for her children. She loves deeply and parents firmly and honestly but is rightly concerned for their safety.
“I didn’t raise you to be no fool…” Marion tells Simeon. “You want to live long enough to get to that school up north, then you better learn how to live here in the South.”
But Lamb is tired of being the peacemaker between her mother and brother, always predictable, always boring. And she craves the freedom to make her own choices, even if her choices involve secretly seeking out her estranged father Chester and crossing the forbidden color line and befriending Marny, a white but fellow book lover whose family are avowed racists.
As each character grapples with their own secrets, some to protect themselves, others to protect those around them, both their secrets and their lives begin to unravel in ways no one could have ever predicted.
Never free to live her life authentically, Lamb says, “I felt like I was onstage with everybody staring at me, waiting for me to act out a part in a play I didn’t know the words for.”
In my mind, there is very little light between historical and dystopian fiction. In both genres, characters find themselves faced with a pressure to conform, media propaganda, an uncertain future, societal inequities, isolation, inhumanity, polarization and a lack of freedom, all themes so resonant with the challenges young adults are facing today.
As Lamb and Marny’s interracial friendship is tested by the weight of a segregated community, they, like many of their real life and literary teen counterparts, are the ones questioning and fighting back against oppressive systems.
“Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen…” Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood makes clear in her distinction between genres.
But whatever we may choose to call it, monsters live not just in science, speculative, dystopia or post-apocalyptic fiction. They have quite often lived and breathed and walked among us in the not too long ago past and they can reside as well on the pages of historical fiction.
“What’s past is prologue,” William Shakespeare once wrote.
Who are we in the worst of times? If we are not careful, and we do not learn from the lessons, the silence and the secrets of history, just flip a page of one of these beautifully crafted thrillers and discover for yourself who we might well become.
Meet the author
Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of more than twenty books for young readers including the award-winning Finding Langston trilogy. Her work has received a plethora of honors, including dozens of starred reviews, NAACP Image Award nominations, a Coretta Scott King honor, the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and a Christopher Award. Her work has been named to ALA Notable Books and Bank Street Best Children’s Book lists and she lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York.
Twitter handle: @lclineransome
Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/lesa.clineransome
About For Lamb
An interracial friendship between two teenaged girls goes tragically wrong in this powerful historical novel set in the Jim Crow South.
For Lamb follows a family striving to better their lives in the late 1930s Jackson, Mississippi. Lamb’s mother is a hard-working, creative seamstress who cannot reveal she is a lesbian. Lamb’s brother has a brilliant mind and has even earned a college scholarship for a black college up north— if only he could curb his impulsiveness and rebellious nature.
Lamb herself is a quiet and studious girl. She is also naive. As she tentatively accepts the friendly overtures of a white girl who loans her a book she loves, she sets a off a calamitous series of events that pulls in her mother, charming hustler uncle, estranged father, and brother, and ends in a lynching.
Told with nuance and subtlety, avoiding sensationalism and unnecessary brutality, this young adult novel from celebrated author Lesa Cline-Ransome pays homage to the female victims of white supremacy.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 01/10/2023
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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