Julius Lester's Guardian is a small book that packs a tremendous punch. The setting is a small town named Davis in the deep South, and the subject matter is the lynching of a black man in the summer of 1946. The story is told from the perspective of a young white boy who witnesses the barbaric act and knows the truth of the man's innocence, but remains silent.
Ansel Anderson is the son of the white owner of Anderson's General Store. His best friend, Willie Benton, is black, and Ansel's father, Bert, disapproves of the two boys' easy familiarity. Bert Anderson is grooming his son to take over the family business, and believes that at age fourteen, it is "time for Ansel to understand what it mean(s) to be white, and past time for Willie to understand what it mean(s) to be a nigger." Tragedy strikes when Mary Susan Dennis, the preacher's daughter, is raped and murdered at the altar of her father's church. Even though Zeph Davis the Third, the degenerate son of the town's most influential family, is seen leaving the church covered in blood, the murder is blamed on Willie Benton's father, a shell-shocked black war veteran who works on the premises. Ansel and his father are the first to come upon the body of Mary Susan, and both know the truth, but Bert Anderson, realizing that he and his family will not be able to stay in Davis if he sticks up for a black man over a white man, does not step forward, and even provides the rope to be used in the lynching of Big Willie Benton. Ansel is furious at his father for his cowardice and bigotry, but cannot find the strength within himself to stand up against him. The white population of Davis works itself into a frenzy over the rape and murder, which they call an assault on "the flower of Southern womanhood." The lynching takes on a carnival atmosphere, with virtually everyone in town in attendance. In the aftermath of the atrocity, Ansel's mother sends her son away to live in the North, and when she is assured that he is safe, commits suicide.
Guardian is a devastatingly brutal book which addresses dark historical events with unflinching honesty. Although it was written as a children's book, it might be more suitable for older adolescents if used in the classroom because of its adult content and handling. The author, Julius Lester, writes with a starkly lyrical straightforwardness about "a time and place where cruelty and hatred (are) as ordinary as bacon and eggs," and about ethical dilemmas which still haunt our nation today. Lester provides documentation showing that lynching was a far more widespread phenomenon than is commonly believed, and stresses that as a symbol of the terrorist tactics long used "to keep a nigger in his place," it conveys a visceral hatred that must never be taken lightly under any circumstances. Lester does not mince words in placing responsibility for eliminating racial divides of all kinds on the shoulders of every individual. Like the fictional young character Ansel Anderson, Lester calls on each of us to remember the cruelties committed in the name of race, and to become self-appointed guardians of the pain engendered so that they may never happen again.