Even though they are poor black farmers in the Mississippi Delta, Alena Waterbridge’s parents have managed to give her a happy, sheltered upbringing. Surrounded by love and nature’s bounty, at eighteen she had never suspected that her life might have to change. When she finds her childhood friend J. C.’s body in the woods near her home, the victim of a brutal lynching, her trauma is unbearable. Ignorant of the ugly realities of racism of the era, she cannot understand why the grown-ups around her fail to protest. At J. C.’s funeral, she starts an angry tirade. Realizing how dangerous this is and unable to keep her quiet, her parents decide to send her far away, to Chicago, where her Aunt Patrice lives.
Driving twenty hours in a horse-drawn cart to reach the station, Amos and Evelyn take her to catch a Chicago-bound train. Alena, furious at having her life plans interrupted this way, distances herself from them emotionally before they part. During the long ride north, her emotions harden further. She determines not to let herself care about anyone else. Pearl, a porter, always on the lookout for young innocents to seduce, invites her into the porters’ car for a meal. (“Colored” passengers cannot eat in the dining car.) Deac, watching Pearl’s machinations, cautions him against toying with Alena. Pearl shrugs off the warnings and tells Alena that he will meet her again later, in Chicago.
Aunt Patrice is a bubbly but practical woman who sees through Alena’s petulance from the beginning but believes that time and love will heal her. She chatters enthusiastically about people and projects waiting for Alena in the neighborhood, ignoring the girl’s lack of response. Chicago’s crowds and sights do impress Alena, and deep inside, she realizes that she is not equipped to handle the world on her own terms. She helps with mission projects, but reluctantly, keeping up her facade of icy disdain.
The south State Street neighborhood where she and Aunt Patrice live bustles with black-owned stores and services and people trying to build a better life. James Pittman, just back from service...
(The entire section is 870 words.)