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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: White Lilacs

Moving is a pain, even if it's just a few blocks away, as my last move was. But moving to a new town in a different state takes the pain to a level of trauma. It can also bring a whole new perspective to a writer's life.

In 1990 we moved from Albuquerque to Denton, Texas, a college town north of Dallas. Once the old house was rejuvenated, my office established overlooking a pear tree, and the kitchen functional, I began to wonder where I was going to fit in a town where women wore dresses and had their hair done regularly. I was still fumbling to find my place when on a chilly February day I wandered to the park near our house where I often walked the dog and discovered a ceremony in progress: the dedication of a historical plaque, honoring an African-American community that had existed on the site of that park from soon after the Civil War until the 1920s. I stuck around to listen to the speeches about the black people who had lived there and the white people who had driven them away. Before the speeches were done, the character of Rose Lee Jefferson had taken up residence in my head.

But I had a lot to learn about Texas in the 1920s, as well as about black Freedomtown and white Dillon, as I renamed them. And not just Texas, but all of the South. And I took some big risks: Choosing to write in the voice of a 13-year-old African American girl was a stretch--would I be roundly criticized for it? In fact, the book was warmly received by the black community. I was even invited to speak at the Sunday morning service of a black church, an experience I'll never forget. Some of the white people, however, were less enthusiastic. They were still proud of the statue of the Confederate soldier on the town square. I was the outsider, the Yankee who had come to criticize them.

WHITE LILACS was published in 1993. It's still in print, and still in use in many school districts--and not just in Texas.
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