Book explores race relations in the 1940s

Abby McGanney Nolan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sometimes your birthday can get a little too exciting.

It’s the summer of 1946 as this story begins, and 12-year-old Gabriel Haberlin races to show his best friend the bike he just got.

Gabriel goes through a red light at an intersection. He would have gotten hit – and maybe killed – by a Buick Roadmaster auto if a man hadn’t bravely pushed him out of the way.

The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA follows the next few weeks in the life of Gabriel and the fictional small town of Birdsong, South Carolina, but author Brenda Woods shows how much can happen in a short time.

The man who saved Gabriel is Meriwether Hunter, a recently returned veteran of World War II who is a talented mechanic.

But because of the colour of his skin – he’s a Black man in an unfriendly time and place – he has had trouble finding a job.

Gabriel, who is White, is a thoughtful child. He’s eager to better understand the town – and the wider society – he lives in. He has an ally in his 16-year-old cousin, Theodora, who wants to be a world-travelling photographer.

He also has well-meaning parents, who oppose discrimination against Black people and hire Mr Hunter at his father’s gas station/auto sales and repair shop.

Gabriel’s parents forbid him from riding his bike for two weeks – as punishment for his carelessness on his birthday – but he doesn’t spend the time sulking.

In addition to hanging out with Patrick, his best friend, Gabriel helps out at the gas station and gets to know Mr Hunter and his 10-year-old daughter, Abigail.

For good reason, Gabriel is worried about whether another of his father’s employees, who is rumoured to be a member of the racist Ku Klux Klan, might harm Mr Hunter and Abigail.

The events of The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA raise plenty of questions for Gabriel and Patrick. These include the nature of friendship and the ways White Americans treated World War II veterans based on their race.

Most of all, the story encourages trying to consider situations from other people’s perspectives. As Mr Hunter tells Gabriel, that process can have benefits, “Sometimes it’ll even let you see things the way they really are and give you peace of mind.”