Until I opened Susan Follett’s novel, I had never heard of a fog machine. In the 1950s, apparently, they were widely used, particularly in the Deep South, to kill mosquitos. A specially fitted truck drove through town spewing clouds of insecticide, and the local children chased the trucks, weaving in and out of the clouds of sweet-smelling poison, heedless of the danger.
As Susan Follett notes in her interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, this image of carelessly self-destructive innocents lured by something that only appears to be harmless is a perfect image for the deadly effects of prejudice—both for those discriminated against and, less obviously, for those who discriminate. This deeply thoughtful novel about what causes societies to accept and to resist change has a perhaps unanticipated resonance in the wake of the racial unrest that has afflicted the United States this past year. But it addresses the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, now half a century old but neither finished nor forgotten. Through the lives of its three main characters and their friends and families, the book explores the segregated South, the in some ways no less segregated North, and the efforts—most notably during the Freedom Summer of 1964—to guarantee liberty and justice for every citizen of the United States of America.
The rest of this post is from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Even without the almost daily headlines reporting racial injustice in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, Madison, and elsewhere, it would be difficult to grasp that fifty years have already passed since the March from Selma to Montgomery to protest discrimination against African-Americans. Events that take place in our own lifetimes or the lifetimes of someone we know do not seem like history, and recent Supreme Court decisions combined with the incidents that populate those headlines raise questions about the stability of the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement as well as the long path that the United States has yet to travel before it achieves its dream of equality for all.
In The Fog Machine (Lucky Sky Press, 2014), Susan Follett recreates the years before the March from Selma, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her book begins in the Deep South, still clinging to its Jim Crow laws, then moves to the Midwest in an exploration of prejudice both overt and covert and of the forces that promote change in individuals and in societies. The novel opens with Joan, a seven-year-old white girl in Mississippi desperate to fit in. Part of fitting in involves humiliating C. J., who cleans Joan’s family’s house and babysits once a week. When C. J. then leaves for Chicago, Joan is devastated. Surely her cruelty must be to blame.
But C. J. has her own reasons for leaving. Chicago welcomes her even as it confines her in a box labeled “live-in maid.” C. J. can’t imagine protesting this treatment; her parents have convinced her that safety means keeping her place. But as the 1950s give way to the 1960s, her friends from home question the wisdom of accepting the status quo. A man named Martin Luther King, Jr., is preaching civil disobedience. A boy named Zach is urging C. J. to help him change the world. And when Zach decides to take part in the Freedom Summer of 1964, C. J., too, wonders whether safety is the only thing that counts.