When I Crossed No-Bob (2007) is the story of a young girl, twelve-year-old Addy O'Donnell, who comes of age in desperate times, but finds the strength to break out of the cycle of hatred and abuse that characterizes her upbringing. Setting is integral to this young adult historical novel by Margaret McMullan. The narrative takes place in rural Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. The vanquished South has been laid waste, and the people are "mad and hungry and armed." The O'Donnell clan in particular embodies the worst elements of the struggling poor-white population. The O'Donnells are bitter, ruthless, violent, and mean.
At the beginning of the narrative, Addy's Momma abandons her at a wedding picnic, and the young girl is reluctantly taken in by Mr. Frank Russell, the bridegroom, and his new wife Irene. The couple's cabin is sparsely furnished but clean, and Mr. Frank and Irene themselves are reasonable and kind, creating an environment in sharp contrast to the sordid one from which Addy hails. All Addy has ever known is the cruelty and squalor of No-Bob. (The land is so named because a freed black slave named Bob wandered into the area and was never seen again). Frank Russell fears that Addy will be nothing but trouble, because "mean makes mean and more mean." Contrary to his expectations, however, Addy is instinctively drawn by the decency the couple has shown her, and struggles to prove that she can rise above the reputation that follows her as an O'Donnell.
Things are going well for Addy until her Pappy, who has been gone for some time, returns to claim her. He has arranged to marry her off to his friend Smasher, and Addy is forced to go back to the dangerous and unfriendly environs of No-Bob. Addy, though, has experienced a different kind of life, where people treat each other with civility and respect, and when she witnesses two events of utter depravity, she is forced to make a decision no child should ever have to make. A black church is set on fire and a little boy is killed, and a short time later the boy's father is the victim of an attempted lynching. Although the perpetrators' identities are obscured by the diabolic white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, Addy soon realizes that the instigator in both atrocities was her Pappy. Addy courageously severs her ties to No-Bob forever by providing the testimony in court that sends her father to prison.
McMullan deftly recreates an especially dark time in history in When I Crossed No-Bob, a time when destitution and lack of moral direction resulted in the victimization of all types of people, and gave ultimate rise to the notorious Klan. Against this backdrop, Addy, who narrates the story in simple, realistic dialect, is a beacon of hope. Intelligent and inquisitive, she is constantly trying to make sense of the world around her. With insight far deeper than many adults, she comes to the understanding that individuals do not have to, nor should they, be defined by their race, or occupation, or family background; to categorize others in this manner only breeds intolerance. Through strength of character and with the support of trusted friends, Addy rises above her upbringing to determine her own destiny, crossing over from No-Bob into a life marked by decency and understanding.