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Neighbors Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Set in the school desegregation period, “Neighbors” focuses on the conflicts faced by one black family, which has decided to defy custom and send its small son to a white school. The events of the story take place on the day before Tommy Mitchell is to go to the white school for the first time. Interestingly, the tensions are seen through the eyes of Tommy’s older sister, Ellie Mitchell, who is old enough to fear for her brother but not old enough to make the hard choices that the parents must face.

In the first part of the story, Ellie is making her way home from work to her own house. Everything and everyone she sees remind her of the danger faced by Tommy and the family. When a well-dressed man on the bus stares at Ellie, she wonders whether her family is pictured in the newspaper he is reading. The foreboding weather and the silent main street, though not unnatural, seem ominous under the circumstances.

However, there is more than Ellie’s imagination to make her nervous. A stranger in a Chevrolet calls Ellie over to promise revenge if Tommy is harmed; a friend signals with crossed fingers; an old man speculates on what will happen to Tommy. When Ellie reaches home, the strange cars in front, the locked door, the serious men in the living room, and the drawer full of threatening letters all remind her that Tommy is a marker in a game played for keeps.

Tommy, too, is apprehensive, clinging to his favorite book, asking whether he will be hurt. Nervously, Mrs. Mitchell asks Ellie to take her place in the group that will go with Tommy to the school, and Ellie agrees. Then, after Tommy is in bed and the men have all left, just as the family is ready to settle down for the night, the house is bombed. Although no one is hurt, the parents rethink their plans and at last decide not to send Tommy to the white school.