Setting

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1663

Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues is set in Montgomery, Alabama, during late June 1956, six months after Rosa Parks's arrest. Settings within the city offer contrasts of shelter, inclusion, exclusion, love versus danger, and hate with some places harboring elements of both good and bad or exhibiting them in varying...

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Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues is set in Montgomery, Alabama, during late June 1956, six months after Rosa Parks's arrest. Settings within the city offer contrasts of shelter, inclusion, exclusion, love versus danger, and hate with some places harboring elements of both good and bad or exhibiting them in varying degrees. Ironically, Montgomery is where both the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement had significant beginnings. In 1861, that city was the first Confederate capitol where politicians approved some of the first orders approving military action against federal troops. Alfa refers to places in the city where slaves were sold.

Almost one hundred years later, Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger and was arrested. This was the catalyst for social protest and legal action by other African Americans in Montgomery who had previously taken a stand against injustices and racial inequality. The bus boycott in Montgomery gave black leaders a voice to organize a community-shared mission which seized national attention about the plight of blacks in the segregated South. Ministers were among the most prominent leaders, including a young Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached nonviolence as a means to seek humanitarian social reform.

The Merryfield's home is located in Sundown, an African-American community, near downtown Montgomery. They live in a two-room, tar-paper shack which has no electricity or plumbing. The four glassless windows are covered with "greased brown paper." The monthly rent is fifty dollars payable to their landlord Mr. Harris. Various places in the shack's walls or in objects such as a picture frame serve as hiding places for that money. The family has few belongings. Alfa treasures his flashlight which illuminates things he is reading or places he is searching. Sometimes he has to use it to get Big Mama's attention by shining it on his face so that she recognizes him. When the weather is warm and clear, the Merryfields bathe with water from a faucet at a neighbor's house. If it is cold or stormy, they bring water inside. They use an outhouse. Usually Alfa can bring food home from the grocery store where he works, but, when he cannot, he and his sister root through dumpsters to find edible scraps. Nearby woods provide Alfa a private place to think and read and a place to collect sticks for the wood-burning stove.

The neighboring houses are much nicer than the shack and have electricity, plumbing, gas stoves, four rooms, and porches. Alfa acknowledges that people tolerate his tacky dwelling because they respect and value his great-grandmother, saying "Our tar-paper house embarrassed the street, but the neighbors loved Mama Merryfield." Twenty houses, ten per side, fill his block. Neighbors raise gardens and chickens, and pleasant cooking smells waft through the neighborhood. Alfa plays kick the can with neighborhood children in a "brick-red Alabama dirt" field. He walks the streets to go to work and to look for his great-grandmother who often becomes disoriented and lost because she is unfamiliar with routes due to relying on bus drivers to know directions. Robinet depicts Sundown as a hot, dusty, weedy, cluttered, somewhat lethargic place with puddles and populated by mosquitoes and stray dogs.

In contrast, the white neighborhoods are described as having sizeable houses and yards. Unlike Sundown, though, the white neighborhoods are hostile, intolerant, and unfriendly spaces for blacks. When Alfa attempts to make a delivery to a customer, Mrs. Logan, whose address he cannot decipher from the piece of paper he has been given, he is threatened, called obscenities, and accused of looking for trouble. At the Williams's thirty-room, yellow mansion where Alfa goes with his great-grandmother and sister to clean to earn enough rent money, he is amazed by the opulence. Mrs. Williams imports foreign trees and has native trees removed to plant the new ones. She also has costly exotic flowers. The spacious mansion lacks the love, compassion, and unity found in the Merryfield's tiny shack. The $2,000 she accuses the Merryfields of stealing seems immense compared to their $10 salary for extensive house cleaning.

When he is not at home, Alfa spends most of his time at Greendale Grocery. Alfa keeps the store orderly, arranging cans so that labels face forward at the same angle and items are color coordinated. He unloads produce from trucks to stock the store. During his breaks, Alfa studies anatomy and biology textbooks that he keeps in the storage room. The grocery store is nurturing because it provides Alfa money and food for his family. The store, however, can be a negative environment because Alfa is afraid he will accidentally slice open bags of flour when he cuts open boxes and has nightmares in which that happens and Mr. Greendale shouts, "Look, Alfred's white now!" He is also stressed by Mr. Greendale's antagonistic attitude toward him, making racist remarks and unfair comments about Alfa's work performance.

The Holt Street Baptist Church is a nucleus of comfort and hope for the Merryfields. At church, they are surrounded by people who welcome and care about them and seek the same goals. The church is crowded by people who are polite and respectful towards each other. Mama Merryfield is guided inside, while Alfa sits near an open window and listens to hymns and prayers broadcasted over loudspeakers. Like a pep rally, church leaders, featuring real ministers Reverend Martin Luther King., Jr., and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, tell the congregation about discussions with city and bus officials and outlines African American demands for equitable transportation based on "first come, first served" and legal efforts to change the segregated system. These speeches boost people's spirits, and they respond with cheers and applause. Alfa gets "goose bumps" when he realizes that Montgomery's boycott could stop bus segregation throughout the United States. The church fills him with pride and optimism.

Other settings are inhospitable to Alfa. At Dr. William's office, Alfa is disappointed when Dr. Williams rudely dismisses him. A nurse, however, provides Alfa some crucial information about the Williams's financial woes. This altercation between Alfa and Dr. Williams has to be especially frustrating because of Alfa's interest in medicine and aspiration to become a physician. Dr. Williams and his office are not going to provide Alfa any assistance or mentoring to encourage him and help make his dreams come true. The white attendant at the gas station is threatening to Alfa who quickly leaves after obtaining a clue about Mrs. Williams's brother, Paul Adams. The pawnshop also is hazardous territory where the proprietor alerts Alfa that he is unwelcome. Alfa is careful on the streets of Montgomery, aware that he could get in trouble if anyone perceived he was dawdling or looking at whites in ways they thought were inappropriate. Alfa's sister Zinnia boldly drinks from a "whites only" fountain and makes loud remarks about water from the "colored" fountain not having color. Alfa steps off the sidewalk when white people are approaching and avoids their eyes. These details help readers picture the realities of segregation and how settings were altered to force obedience. Alfa's estimates of how long it takes to walk to each place reveals not only the distances between places, but also the separation of people based on racial attitudes.

Alfa fears the police station which fills him with dread. He knows that black males often did not survive interrogations by the police. Alfa bravely goes to the station as summoned and waits on a "hard wooden bench" that "smelled of sweat and pee." He sits at the end of a ten-foot-long wooden table "full of dents and pits, as if people had hammered on it" in a "stuffy inner room." Officer Newton sits at the other end and lets Alfa present his story. This interrogation is an epiphany for Alfa who pieces together clues as he speaks and realizes who the thief in the Williams's house is. Alfa's second visit to the police station is more pleasant because he talks with Officer Newton in a "small, air-conditioned room" in which a "red geranium bloomed on the windowsill." The lighted room represents Alfa being able to convince Officer Newton of his evidence, even though the policeman says he will not press charges against Mrs. Williams. Also, Officer Newton gives Alfa sufficient money to pay rent and tells him that his family will be exonerated of theft and Mama Merryfield will receive Social Security payments that should cover future rent expenses.

When he asks about getting Social Security for Big Mama, Alfa goes to the library because Officer Newton said that was where his children went to find information. Instead of learning about Social Security, Alfa gains a lesson in whom to trust. Guards club Alfa while he tells them that Officer Newton sent him. He realizes that he should ask African Americans whether he should go someplace instead of trusting whites.

Alfa renews his spirit at a park-like place on the Alabama River which he dips his fingers into because "Flowing waters always soothed me." Robinet locates this site near factual places such as Union Station and Tallapoosa and Commerce Streets. Alfa passes through a tunnel beneath a railroad bridge, suggesting rebirth and freedom like that gained by runaway slaves using the Underground Railroad. Alfa's realization based on Mama Merryfield's information that cotton used to be shipped from that site to England shows their awareness of the world and broader and possibly more tolerant settings than Montgomery. The park also brings Alfa despair when he sees a homeless man. Alfa worries about his future and questions his aspirations.

Because the characters are faithful to the bus boycott, no bus is depicted as a setting. Readers only see the outside of buses empty except for a few white passengers and blacks who are white children's nannies who ride buses only to transport those children. Bus interiors are never described because the characters never ride them. Alfa only once rides in a car during the week featured because an African American offers him a ride.

Literary Qualities

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Robinet lets Alfa tell his story. This first person narrative enables readers to experience Alfa's dilemmas and successes and empathize with him and his family. Robinet's historical research and personal awareness of segregation contribute to the authenticity of her text. While Alfa and most characters are fictional, they are acting in a setting that is real. She occasionally uses real words from speeches for dialogue and lyrics from hymns that became Civil Rights anthems. Robinet stresses the importance of novels like Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues because, "I believe that if we don't know our history, we're sometimes tricked into repeating the worst of it." She does not spare readers by sugarcoating reality to make it more palatable. Instead, she presents the extremes of poverty and elitism of that place and era. Drama and humor intertwine to enhance suspense and relieve tension.

Her characters are believable because of the details she provides about their desires, frustrations, and interests to develop their characters. Robinet vividly describes the southern landscape with magnolia and crepe myrtle trees. True to southern traditions, white characters are addressed by the courtesy titles Miss, Mrs., and Mr., as well as "Sir" and "Ma'am." Alfa and Zinnia also use such titles for black adults. When whites address Big Mama as Aunt Lydia, that is their way to demonstrate their respect and affection for her. Names convey deeper meanings. Merryfield refers to the family's optimism and efforts to seek joy even in despair and might allude to their slave heritage when their ancestors toiled in cotton fields. Sundown represents the African- American community whose day begins when they can rejoin their families after work and school. That name might also refer to the dusk color of its inhabitants and symbolize that the boycott was nearing its successful end.

Robinet uses figurative language effectively to make Alfa's world vivid and dynamic. His church is "packed fuller than a bag full of mothballs." When he hears the ministers' speeches, Alfa says "you could slice the hope like juicy peaches." Alfa refers to situations with figures of speech based on his grocery experiences such as grocery figurative language "mixing the apples and the oranges" and "mixed the lemons and limes." He differentiates between "small beans" and "big beans" troubles. Alfa says that "Anger bubbled up inside like red beans at a boil." When Zinnia criticizes one of his plans, Alfa states she "soured my cream." He compares his problem-resolution method with stocking the grocery, saying "I set cans of the story on neat shelves in my mind. All the labels were facing out." This final sentence indicates that Alfa knows the identity of the thief.

Nature uplifts Alfa's mood because "Moonlight was silken" and "birds were calling, insects were chirping, and tree frogs were whistling." Bird imagery emphasizes African Americans' desire to fly above their woes on the ground. Alfa's injured leg, wounded twice by the bullies and library guards, is a literary device that Robinet has used in other books to show that characters can rise above impediments and use their brains not their brawn to resolve problems. She often uses music, such as Alfa's invented "a bad case of rent money blues," in her books to express spirituality, joy, and determination.

Racial references include Alfa's comment that "Now I was going to suffer because of my little white lie," suggesting that type of deceit was not as severe like Mrs. Williams's theft was ignored. This sentence also suggests that perhaps Alfa should not have attempted to conceal the truth because of his race. The dog Tramp, whose leg Alfa saws off, is "black-and-white," hinting of racial harmony. Religious imagery is consistent throughout the text with Alfa declaring "I was a church-going boy" and singing spirituals. God's name and prayer are often invoked. Alfa could be considered a Christ figure undergoing trials and a metaphorical crucifixion and resurrection. Church services resemble revivals, trying to save the souls not only of people but of Montgomery. Alfa makes religious allusions to early Christians and their tormentors such as saying, "Why challenge the lions when you're out of the arena?"

Colloquial speech patterns enhance Robinet's storytelling and characterization of southern African Americans, especially the phrasing "It be" and Big Mama's statement, "I shake the dust from my feet." Racist characters use offensive terms when speaking to blacks, emphasizing their disrespect and disdain for African Americans. The use of "y'all" seems jarring at times because most southerners use that contraction plurally to indicate two or more people, and Robinet's characters say "y'all" when addressing one person. Also, Alfa refers to neo-Nazis which seems like a modern intrusion. In the 1950s, blacks in Montgomery probably would have alluded to someone having ties to the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists and not Nazism or groups associated with skinheads and hate groups that gained public attention in the late twentieth century. Robinet refers to moving south to Birmingham from Montgomery. Montgomery is approximately one hundred miles south of Birmingham.

Social Sensitivity

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Robinet is acutely aware of social injustices which she presents in Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. Her African-American characters experience inequitable treatment and seek improvement not only for themselves but for all people. Racism is the most serious social issue in this novel. Although some whites sympathetic to blacks' plight assist them in minor ways or verbally support them, most whites are depicted as contributing to the problem of segregation. Alfa refers to the "white establishment" and "system" that attempt to prevent him from pursuing his dreams and securing sufficient resources to advance beyond his marginal lifestyle.

While trying to resolve his concerns about rent money and public respect for his family, Alfa becomes aware that whites also have personal and economic problems. Even though Alfa tends to be empathetic, he often withholds understanding for whites because "I had discovered that they paid for what was important to them." Hard work and thrift are depicted as virtues. Family is celebrated in this novel and sustains individuals despite uncontrollable obstacles and interferences that try to impede and intimidate them. The African-American community is depicted as supportive and loving, accepting its members and providing what comforts they can. Robinet's characters seek to make friends not enemies. The federal government's issuance of Social Security shows another means of community support and recognition of wage earners of all races.

Thoroughly dedicated to the boycott and his people, Alfa walks and seeks to right injustices because he wants to "break these chains pulling our Merryfield family down." His acts of civil disobedience are intended to improve society as a whole not break it down. In contrast, Alfa's mother abandons her children and is addicted to drugs and gambling. She tries to disintegrate the family and community structure and has no respect for Big Mama. Homelessness and the ruthlessness of some landlords who charge expensive rental fees for deteriorating properties which they refuse to repair are also social issues this novel broaches. All of the Merryfields' earnings are needed to cover the rent each month. Often, their employers delay payment of salaries, not pay them at all, or fire them for no valid reasons.

The Merryfields' walking emphasizes their conviction and idealism that individuals can make a difference. Their kindnesses, compassion, and humanitarian spirit demonstrate the values of tolerance, forgiveness, and nonviolence to society. They survive a variety of social abuses and persevere, retaining their sense of humor, to insure that personal dignity is preserved and that truth and freedom prevail.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

Cart, Michael. Review of Walking to the Bus- Rider Blues. Booklist, vol. 96 (May 1, 2000): 1670. Recommends the novel because "Ultimately, this easily resolved mystery is less compelling than Robinet's quietly dramatic, often poignant re-creation of the early days of the civil rights movement and Alfa's growing determination to 'put up his dukes' nonviolently in defense of his family's dignity."

Knight, Judson. "Robinet, Harriette Gillem 1931." In Something about the Author, vol. 104. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Biographical sketch of Robinet and list of resources prior to publication of Walking to the Bus- Rider Blues.

Larson, Gerry. Review of Walking to the Bus- Rider Blues. School Library Journal, vol. 46 (May 1, 2000): 176. Remarks that "Despite the emphasis on racial inequities, both black and white characters are shown as vulnerable and capable of change" and offers the following praise: "Ingredients of mystery, suspense, and humor enhance and personalize this well constructed story that offers insight into a troubled era."

Roback, Diane, with Jennifer M. Brown and Jason Britton. Review of Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. Publishers Weekly, vol. 247 (June 10, 2000): 94-95. Labels Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues as a "quasimystery and historical novel." Concludes that "The novel is at its strongest when filling in historical details of the time, such as the volunteer taxi service for bus boycotters, and may well inspire readers to discover more about this important chapter in civil rights history."

Thompson, Deborah L. Review of Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. Horn Book Guide, vol. 11 (Fall 2000): 311. Supportive of Robinet's novel although "Occasional jarring instances of modern dialogue and terminology are a minor distraction."

The Southern Poverty Law Center Teaching Tolerance. http://www.splcenter. org/ teachingtolerance/ tt-index.html. This site includes curriculum packages, teaching tools, and an online magazine.

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