Jesse Jackson John W. Conner - Essay

John W. Conner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jesse Jackson is a very funny writer. In The Sickest Don't Always Die the Quickest he has created a black Tom Sawyer (Steeplehead) and a black Huckleberry Finn (Stonewall) who cavort irreverently through two weeks of hot July afternoons in 1920….

To support Steeplehead and Stonewall, the author recreates the black society which attends Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio. These people and the white folks who control jobs held by blacks are a microcosm reflecting the foibles of a world with which the innocent but ornery Steeplehead and Stonewall constantly collide. (p. 665)

Stonewall and Steeplehead are twelve and thirteen respectively. Neither is willing to shed the superstitions which adults around them practice; both boys want to be true to their own beliefs but find this difficult when threatened by adults. Jesse Jackson's adult characters often behave more like children than Stonewall and Steeplehead do. The author implies that children's honesty is warped to fit adult misconceptions. Not that a reader will believe that Stonewall and Steeplehead will be warped! These two adolescent free thinkers will survive adult misconceptions despite adult pressures! (pp. 665-66)

Jesse Jackson's frank language and the chapter in which Stonewall makes his weekly paper route collections may make The Sickest Don't Always Die the Quickest unacceptable for some readers. Read this book before recommending it to adolescents. You will enjoy it. Jesse Jackson's humor will leave a thought-provoking tingle at the end of your funny bone. (p. 666)

John W. Conner, in English Journal (copyright 1971 by the National Council of Teachers of English), May, 1971.

[The Fourteenth Cadillac is less] a finished novel than impressionistic sketches of Calvary—or black Columbus, Ohio, in 1925, as experienced by teen-aged Stonewall Jackson…. Jackson doesn't attempt to construct a plot out of Stonewall's problems in landing a suitable job (and avoiding one as the undertaker's apprentice) or appeasing his girl Talitha who resents his refusal to join the church. Instead, this is to be read—by youngsters who don't require narrative tension, psychological depth or even polished writing—for Stonewall's passing observations on Calvary funeral protocol and pretension … and the distinctly evoked social surfaces of this church-centered community where the altar is equipped—are you ready?—with a white telephone hooked up with heaven. (p. 1152)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1972 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), October 1, 1972.