On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a racist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four young girls, whose departing souls become the “four spirits” of the title of Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel. While the four spirits hover at the edges of the novel, appearing here and there to various characters, the novel is not, in the final analysis, their story. Rather, Four Spirits is the intertwining stories of a large cast of characters, some fictional, some real, whose lives intersect in the troubled and troubling days of the 1960’s.
Foremost among them is Stella Silver, a young white woman who has suffered her own losses; Cat Cartwright, a wheelchair-bound yet courageous young woman who metaphorically stands up to a racist bomber; Christine Taylor, a young black college student and single mother who juggles her education, her children, and civil rights work; and Gloria Callahan, a comfortably-well-off young black student who chooses a less-safe path for herself by teaching in the Freedom School with the others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Police Chief Bull Connor are among the historical personages making cameo appearances in the novel.
Drawing on her own college years in Birmingham in the 1960’s, Naslund sketches the everyday lives of her characters against the larger canvas of the turbulent era. The demonstrations, the fire hoses, the police dogs, and the jailing of young protestors come to life in the pages of this panoramic novel. Told in rich and evocative detail, the vignettes ultimately weave together a cohesive story of events now part of the past, but a past that must be remembered.