Billie Sims is a thirteen-year-old girl living in Anniston, Alabama when the Civil Rights Movement is gathering support across the country. In her town, things have always been the same. Segregation is a reality she has never really considered. That is until she hears about the Freedom Riders, a group of activists protesting segregation by riding interstate buses. Determined to do something instead of stand by and watch as brutality threatens the Freedom Riders, Billie sets off with her new friend Jarmaine Jones to witness history in the making. Though excited at the prospect of change, Billie soon finds out she has a lot to learn about prejudice, racism, and herself.
I don’t know why I didn’t expect much from this book when I picked it up. Perhaps I was just too familiar with narratives of young girls who want to leave their small towns. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t particularly in the mood for historical fiction. Whatever it was, I’m glad I moved past it because this book was quite lovely.
The characters are well thought out and dynamic. Billie is the kind of girl I wish I had been at that age: intelligent, brave, and able to humbly recognize her flaws. Her development throughout the novel is admirable as she goes from relatively oblivious about racism to acknowledging her own contribution to maintaining the unfair status quo. Like Billie, Jarmaine is bold and driven to do what’s right. She is patient with her new friend, but isn’t afraid to call Billie out when needed. One might be inclined to attribute their ability to be friends despite the ‘rules’ of their society to childhood innocence, but Ronald Kidd clearly put effort into illustrating that their relationship, though tenuous at first, grows because of their respect for one another.
While her relationship with Jarmaine becomes her link to the future she hopes for, Billie’s relationship with her father represents the world as it is in 1961. Though they love one another deeply, Billie slowly recognizes that her father is prejudiced. She wants him to be good and he acts – or more aptly, doesn’t act – to protect his family, thus complicating her understanding of race relations. I believe it is important to show this kind of complication as it illustrates the difficulty in bringing about change.
Besides the characters, I was most impressed by this novel’s illustration and explanation of privilege. By spending time with Jarmaine, Billie realizes how much she doesn’t have to think about. She doesn’t have to put thought into what door she uses, where she sits on the bus, or what stores she can go into. Jarmaine, on the other hand, cannot escape having to think about such things. Spending time with Jarmaine slowly introduces Billie to this reality – a reality that she isn’t comfortable with even though she’s been a part of it her whole life.
Just as racism has not ended in real life, Billie doesn’t see Anniston’s problems resolved within the novel. However, she begins to imagine a world in which all people – regardless of skin colour – are treated as equals. That hopeful message is still an important one today and that’s why I think this novel is worth reading.
Final verdict: A great fictionalization of historical events with wonderful, strong protagonists. Night on Fire is appropriate for the 9-13 age range it’s meant for without being overly simple and it is both educational and entertaining.