Themes and Characters

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Louretta Hawkins and her older brother William are the most fully developed characters in The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. A courageous fourteen-year-old, Louretta challenges gang leaders to reject violence and to pursue peaceful, productive goals. Louretta also reminds adults of their responsibility to teen-agers. She persuades parents and teachers to get involved with the clubhouse, and she encourages honest dialogue between teen-agers and adults. On a more personal level, Louretta struggles to overcome the deep resentment that she feels toward her father, who abandoned his family when he could not find work so that his wife could qualify for welfare assistance. Louretta is a sensitive, dynamic character who triumphs over difficult problems during the course of the novel.

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William, Lou's twenty-one-year-old brother, acts as a surrogate father for his siblings. Although his job at the post office provides enough income to support the family in his father's absence, William has studied printing in night school and dreams of opening his own printing business. But his goal seems out of reach because his domineering mother—fearful that the printing business would fail and force the family back onto the dreaded welfare rolls—insists that William keep his "safe" job at the post office. But Lou's faith in her brother's ability to build a successful business bolsters his self-confidence, and he decides to open his shop despite his mother's objections. William also plays a central role in Lou's efforts to establish the clubhouse for local teenagers, providing a space in his shop for the club activities; moreover, he displays courage and integrity in dangerous confrontations with hostile police officers and belligerent gang members. Hunter's characterization William helps young readers understand the necessity of taking risks to reach self-fulfillment.

Eddie Bell, a blind, long-haired old man, plays a key role in the book. Hunter describes him as wearing "several layers of tattered clothing, carrying a white cane and a battered guitar case." He exerts a profound influence on Lou by teaching her to play the blues with feeling and by putting her in touch with her musical heritage. A once-famous musician, Blind Eddie experiences a new sense of purpose in his role as teacher and culture bearer. Under his wise instruction, Lou and her friends learn that the essence of "soul" is rooted in blues and gospel traditions. This knowledge gives them a heightened awareness of their cultural history.

The actions of Officer Lafferty, the central white character in the novel, symbolize the antagonistic patterns that often shaped relations between white police officers and the black citizens that they were ostensibly protecting in the 1960s. Throughout the book, Officer Lafferty and his men harass and intimidate the young people in Lou's neighborhood. Because the teen-agers witness daily examples of police brutality and wanton abuse of power, they hate and fear the officers who patrol their neighborhood. Officer Lafferty seems to derive a perverse satisfaction from provoking black youngsters into behavior that gives him cause to arrest them. In one incident, Lafferty physically assaults a pregnant teenager who belittles his complaints about excessive noise coming from the clubhouse. Hunter leaves no doubt that Lafferty and his fellow officers are racists who treat blacks with utter contempt.

Hunter also depicts a fascinating group of teenagers who join Lou in her efforts to organize the clubhouse. Many of the youngsters are gang members who are tired of Lafferty's abusive tactics. Fess, the militant leader of the gang known as the Hawks, is also a poet. He wants to publish a newspaper that would inform and unite the community in an organized protest against conditions in the neighborhood. When a police officer accidentally kills Jethro, a popular youngster who sings tenor in Lou's group, the club's newspaper reports the tragedy, arousing the indignation of many Southside residents. A quiet unassuming teenager named Calvin uses the clubhouse activities to develop his skills as a visual artist. Calvin also shows incredible bravery in the face of threats from police officers. These teen-agers are representative of the young people that Louretta tries to save from the violent, negative influences of their environment.

Louretta's dream of rescuing her friends from the perils of the streets turns into a nightmare when police officers raid the clubhouse during a fundraising dance, mortally wounding one of her schoolmates. This tragedy plunges Lou into despair and prompts her to charge her school and church with hypocrisy. Lou's white teachers had taught her to view police officers as friendly guardians of the public, but Lou's personal experience has created quite a different image. Moreover, Lou feels deceived by a church that continues to proclaim God's justice in the midst of chronic poverty, pervasive crime, and corrupt police offers. Lou's faith in her school is restored when she learns that several teachers, outraged by the senseless killing, persuade the mayor to allow the reopening of William's print shop and the resumption of clubhouse activities without further police harassment. Hunter's emphasis on perseverance, cooperation, and faith in human potential reinforces fundamental values that encourage young readers to develop a strong sense of self.

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