Blue Hole Back Home is set in North Carolina, but it begins twenty-five years after the fact in Boston. The narrator, Shelby Lenoir Maynard, is relaxing for a moment in the Public Garden and sees a face that shocks her enough to dump her espresso down the front of her blouse and to remember the events of that hot and steamy summer in the South. She does not talk about what happened that summer with any of her friends, about the “night the men in white bedsheets paid house calls all over Pisgah Ridge” and made sure everyone knew who was acceptable—and who was not. Whenever she does start to explain, their inevitable reaction is one of uncomfortable incredulity, wondering how old she is to have experienced such things but certainly not understanding that racial tension still exists in a tangible way in their lifetime. Instead, she stays silent, knowing she has moved beyond the events of that summer. Or at least she thought she had, until that morning in the Garden when the memories are revived. She relives that summer of 1979.
It was hot summer even on the mountain in Pisgah Ridge. Shelby was a sophomore in high school; her older brother, Emerson (or Em), and his best friend, James Beauregard Riggs (Jimbo or Bo), are a year ahead of her. Shelby is one of the guys, affectionately nicknamed “Turtle” by Jimbo. They are a comfortable, companionable trio in all their activities both in and out of school; Shelby adores them both and is half in love with the irrepressible Bo. Emerson loves classic literature but hides his reading material behind Sports Illustrated magazines. Shelby prefers the company of boys, finding girls too concerned about makeup and boys. The Maynard parents are an unlikely pair. Momma was a born and bred southern woman, six generations deep on the Ridge. She espouses the philosophy of “doing as Jesus would do” and being hospitable in all circumstances. Her husband is the city desk editor of the local paper and a Yankee. This dichotomy of philosophies allows the kids plenty of freedom. Bo’s parents, the Riggses, are another matter. His mother is a blue-blooded aristocrat from Virginia who refrains from speaking anything but polite inanities, and his father is a Baptist minister who “never said what he meant, for fear of offending.” Bo’s father is his hero.
A new girl has arrived on the Ridge in the last month of school, a girl foreign in every way. Her name is Farsanna Moulavi, and she has skin the color of homemade hot chocolate. She and her family, semi-practicing Muslims, moved here from Sri Lanka. Her accent as well as the persistent scent of curry and her coloring set her apart from her classmates. She carries herself in such a way that she seems above, or maybe beyond, the stares and unkind words and deeds of those around her. Chief among her tormentors is Morton Beckwith, “a Clydesdale” among the “ponies” around him. Like many boys in town, Morton chews tobacco, and Shelby sees him spit at the dust near Farsanna’s brown, sandaled toes. Neither of the girls speaks, though Shelby wants to and later regrets her silence. This act marks the beginning of that summer’s trouble.
As the summer begins, Em, his dog Big Dog, Bo, and Turtle spend their days working and sweating as they do yard work as part of their business, Big Dog Lawn and Garden Beautifiers. It is a summer of Coke, salted peanuts, and barbecue. Once their work is over for the day, they hop into Em’s truck and pick up their other two compatriots. L.J. is the Maynards’ cousin; his father owns the local Feed and Seed store and who is a walking encyclopedia of information. Bobby Welpler (or Welp) is a pimply-faced, sullen boy whose mother is an alcoholic and is hardly ever to be found in their run-down trailer. The five of them drive to a local spot to cool off, a place known as the Blue Hole, though nothing about it is blue but the sky. Young people park their vehicles at the top of a ridge, kick their shoes into a heap, then slide barefoot down the side of the ridge to the inviting water below. The spring-fed water is almost too cold to swim in, but there is a rope swing where the boys display their athletic prowess for the girls and for each other.
One day on the way to the Blue Hole, from the back of the pickup (home to all passengers except Big Dog, who always rode with Em in the cab) Shelby notices Farsanna’s sad face in her window as they drive by her house. Shelby convinces her brother to stop despite the protests by Welp that they did not need “her” around. It is not that Shelby is overly interested in being friendly (in fact, she has no real girl friends), she simply sees the loneliness on Farsanna’s face. Shelby meets Farsanna’s mother, who is somewhat disabled and quite resentful at being in America but allows Farsanna to go with this friend from school. As she steps regally into the truck bed full of peat moss, mulch, and yard tools, everything changes.
The group (they call themselves the Pack) goes to the Blue Hole. They do not have an auspicious beginning, as Mort “accidentally” fires his rifle (named Jemima) quite close to the new girl. The group recovers and enjoys their time together, the first of many such times that summer. On their way home, they stop to eat and then make an unplanned trip down the mountain to the Valley, a city rife with racial tension. As the pickup full of kids stops at a light to listen to some jazz music coming from the Black quarter on Seventh Street, a careening orange Gremlin with a rifle out the window shoots at the musicians and dancers who had spilled out of the club. What the Pack saw and heard was damage to a streetlight, but they sped from the scene and decided they should say nothing about the incident. They head back to the Ridge, shaken and disturbed. As they drop Bo off, they overhear a snippet of conversation between some men and the Rev. Riggs. The conversation makes them question the racial tenor in their own town. “We don’t want to let nothin’ get too out of hand in this town, now do we?” Tensions on the Ridge are running high, while in the Valley, “whole blocks of city burned in the night and brocks found their way through plate-glass windows downtown.”
The next day, there is only a small article regarding the incident, and it is stuck in the back pages of the paper. The suspicion, it says, is that the offenders were Black. Em and Turtle are incredulous and outraged, knowing that the people they saw appeared to be White men. It also did not mention any damage except to the light, though weeks later an article appeared that said a Black woman who had been shot in the incident was recovering.
But life goes on, and so does the summer routine. Sanna, the name she says her friends use, is now officially one of the Pack. Welp is still sulking and angry about her inclusion but the others seem content. Bo and Em seem to be deferential and attentive to her in a way that has Turtle on edge. Sanna has a way of encouraging each of them to share their souls with her, and even Shelby is a bit entranced by her. One rainy day, the landscaping crew does not work and Jimbo calls to say he will be staying home, which is a rarity because the three of them are always together. Later, Em and Shelby stop at his house only to find he is not there. The Reverend assumed his son was with them but they all realize he must be with Sanna. A drive by Blue Hole confirms Em’s suspicion, and the siblings go to a movie to get Em’s mind off this betrayal. Shelby realizes that both of her “boys” are in love with Sanna. After coming to blows over the incident, Bo assures Em that Sanna likes them both. Em says he has stayed away from her for her own good in this racially charged atmosphere. Bo has no such intentions.
When Sanna calls Shelby with an unexpected invitation to sleep over, even Mrs. Maynard, the queen of southern hospitality and promoter of girl friends, is hesitant to let her daughter stay with this particular, new girl. Shelby reluctantly accepts, hoping Sanna will not mention either of the boys in their lives. After a dinner that is too spicy for Shelby to enjoy and an embarrassing moment in which Sanna’s mother insults the American way of life, the two girls walk to the nearby Dairy Queen. As they are leaving, Mort is revving his truck, also ready to leave the Dairy Queen. Soon after, the girls and Sanna’s dog, Stray, are nearly run over by a swerving truck on the dark road home. Shaken, the girls quickly get to Sanna’s house.
Shelby discovers that the job Sanna’s father had moved his family here for had been denied him because of who he was. The Moulavis are aware of the prejudice that surrounds them, but Sanna explains she must pretend all is well to survive. Late that night, Shelby rises to look at the moon and think, and she sees a man lurking around the back yard of the Moulavis’ house. She quietly and urgently calls Emerson, who leaves immediately to help. As she hangs up the phone, Shelby gets a clear look at the would-be intruder: it is the Rev. Riggs.
When Em arrives and silently coasts into the driveway, Shelby runs to meet him. Em does not believe her when she tells him it was Rev. Riggs, but they park the truck well off the road and head off on foot in the direction he had gone. They stop short when they hear other, more menacing voices in the woods. The other men are clearly threatening the Reverend, warning him that they have been holding back “the boys” and telling him they would not want anything to happen to his boy. One voice sounds a lot like Mort’s father, and he says some of the boys have already had a little fun on a dark road in the way of a warning. Em and Turtle are unable to hear the Reverend’s responses, but he walks away from the gathering quite dejected.
They decide not to talk with Jimbo about this until they have time to talk together, so the next day is almost like any other. After work, they pick up L.J. and Farsanna, stop at Welp’s though he is not home, and spend the late afternoon, as always, at the Blue Hole. Bo surprisingly asks to be dropped off first because his father wants to talk with him. The Pack is met by an uncharacteristically disheveled Rev. Riggs. He is wary of Farsanna and even seems a bit befuddled by her, but he makes small talk with her after introducing himself.
The next day is a strenuous one, and Bo begs off watching the Red Sox–Yankees game with Em, breaking a longstanding tradition between them. Turtle figures out he has a date with Farsanna; Emerson mercifully does not. After the Sox game, she and Em head to the diner and discover Bo...
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