Setting

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The story is set in an area called Southside in an unnamed city in the northern United States during the 1960s. Plagued with gang violence, crime, and police brutality, Hunter's locale is reminiscent of many large, urban neighborhoods where the vast majority of the residents are poor and black. Arrogant, bigoted white police officers patrol the streets of the fictional Southside, harassing black teenagers.

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Most of the action in the novel takes place in the Southside clubhouse for teenagers that Louretta helps to establish. Lou and her friends are sensitive to the racism in their community, and they are aware of the civil rights movement that is gaining momentum throughout much of the United States. While the level of organized social activism in Southside is low, a few militant youngsters involved with the clubhouse print a newspaper containing articles urging adults to join them in protests against police intimidation.

Two other significant features of Southside include the ubiquitous storefront churches and a small group of Black Muslims whose presence in the community signals the emergence of black pride among the residents.

Literary Qualities

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In The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, Hunter creates a realistic and compelling picture of life in the inner city. Hunter's carefully selected images and symbols evoke a complex world in which poverty, violence, and despair dominate the landscape. As a means of coping with these persistent features of their environment, many residents join youth gangs or storefront churches. By controlling certain sections of their neighborhood through verbal and physical intimidation, the gangs offer frustrated teenagers a tempting illusion of power. Ironically, the gangs' influence does not extend to their most potent adversary, the white power structure. For many older blacks, the church, with its promise of a glorious life after death, also represents a desirable escape from the unpleasant realities of their surroundings. Lou's mother is one of countless such people who immerse themselves in religion as they strive to make sense of their narrow, blighted lives.

Hunter invests familiar objects and settings with symbolic significance. For example, when Lou first discovers an old piano left in a building once occupied by a storefront church, she is elated, for in the soft evening light the upright looks beautiful. But when Lou examines the piano in the daylight, she notices numerous scars and scratches on the old cabinet; some keys are missing, and the rest are discolored and dirty. Furthermore, the keys make sour, twanging sounds. Clearly, the old piano symbolizes the sharp contrasts that often exist between appearance and reality. This important idea is emphasized further in Hunter's portrayal of Blind Eddie Bell, the ragged, unkempt blues musician, who at first glance appears to be a worthless old tramp. A popular performer in his heyday, Blind Eddie apparently lost his audience when musical tastes shifted from blues to rock 'n' roll. Nevertheless, he is still an accomplished pianist who not only teaches Lou to play blues chords, but also serves as an invaluable source of black music history. Blind Eddie symbolizes the differences between appearance and reality, but more important, he represents the discarded elements of black culture that must be reclaimed and preserved.

Another effective use of images and symbols is Hunter's depiction of the hospital staff that Lou observes when she tries to donate blood for her injured friend. She notices that blacks wearing "dingy gray uniforms" work in the drab, dimly lighted basement, whereas white employees dressed in white work upstairs in cheerful, bright spaces. The workers in this hospital scene are meant to suggest the respective positions of blacks and whites in 1960s society at large.

Social Sensitivity

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Socially relevant issues in The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou revolve around racism. Long-standing tensions between abusive white police officers and black residents point up the need for effective communication and mutual respect across racial and civic lines. Some readers may view Hunter's portrayal of the police officers who patrol the Southside as too harsh and consistently negative. But historical accounts of American race relations in the 1960s support Hunter's depiction. Hunter does not mean to imply that all black-white relations were antagonistic during this period in U.S. history. In fact, she is careful to indicate the crucial role that Lou's white teachers play in exposing the police officers' abuse of authority. One of Lou's white teachers also volunteers to help develop activities for the teen-agers who come to the clubhouse after school.

Another important social concern that Hunter addresses in the novel is sexism. Throughout the book Lou encounters young men who feel threatened by her self-confidence and intelligence. Indeed, one of the young men involved with a neighborhood civil-rights group tells Lou: "Women have a place in this movement, but they can't be the leaders." Lou rejects the limitations that her male peers seek to impose upon her, and she takes a leadership role in the general clubhouse activities. Lou also infuriates gang leaders when she denounces their violent tactics and persuades some gang members to try nonviolent means of resolving differences. Lou also wields considerable influence in the singing group known as "The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou." Lou is an excellent role model for young women who may suffer the effects of others' sexist attitudes.

For Further Reference

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Neufeld, John. "Review." New York Times Book Review (January 26, 1969): 26. The review praises Hunter's vivid description of the inner city but finds the book's ending unrealistic and contrived.

Sutherland, Zena. "Review." Saturday Review (October 19, 1968): 37. This review identifies Lou's struggle to achieve self-acceptance as a central theme in the novel.

Thompson, Judith, and Gloria Woodard. "Black Perspective in Books for Children." In The Black American in Books for Children, edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972. This brief commentary applauds Hunter's depiction of inner city culture from a black point of view.

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