Let’s first get something out of the way for this book review of One Summer in Arkansas. It’s written by a lawyer who lives in California who grew up in Arkansas, quickly left for college elsewhere, and spent her adult life away from Arkansas. As the exact reverse from the East Coast, I have a pretty unique perspective on the book. The last three years of my life have been full of law school. Unfortunately, that pervasive way of thinking like a lawyer made its way into her book. I couldn’t help chuckling at the instances where it’s clear she’s an attorney. Sterling writes like a lawyer in descriptions such as “mixed use neighborhood.” It’s rife with terrible descriptions and it’s clear she spends her days writing and thinking as a lawyer does. I’m not sure how accessible it is to non-lawyer types. Overall, it’s a decent first attempt but falls flat quickly and has major issues with setting.
The novel centers around Lee Addison and his family in the fictional town of Riverton, Arkansas. I’d guess it’s near Sterling’s hometown of Texarkana and certainly isn’t in the Ozarks or Central Arkansas. Lee has just finished law school and is clerking at a firm in Riverton before starting a career in internet company law in Silicon Valley. In terms of problems of plot–everyone studies like mad for the Bar the summer after law school, especially if they have a job waiting for them. In terms of going home to clerk, it would have made more sense to make it second year instead of third. But since that’s not really integral to the plot, other than the premise of the situation and struggle to decide to leave Arkansas for Lee, it doesn’t matter. The rest of this review contains spoilers.
The events in the novel surround a trial he’s working on, his high school romance reignited, and his teenage sister’s encounter with the law from the other side of the courtroom after a drunk driving hit and run that results in the death of a young girl. Overall, if you’re wondering if you should read it, skip over this novel and read A Painted House instead if you’re looking for contemporary Arkansan literature. I hope to give some helpful criticism to Sterling so her next books can improve.
First, I urge Sterling to not write like an attorney with descriptions like the one mentioned above. Us mere non-lawyer mortals cringe at that kind of language, although factually honest and accurate. I, like most other people who read for enjoyment, love to be told a story, not just the facts. Where Sterling does succumb to poetics, she does well and it’s clear she has skills on which she can improve.
I found some large discrepancies in the motivations of characters. M.J., the teenage sister, was wonderfully written and fully fleshed out in the emotions she might have gone through. Particularly, M.J.’s view of herself as the victim, despite that she was the one who caused harm, fits her character previous to the event. M.J. is a teenager with huge emotional issues and with a mother of the same cloth as her only role model; her actions and emotions make sense.
But in Lee, I see some big problems. His world views are jumbled and rarely explained. While an author doesn’t necessarily have to explain such things, for Lee’s character as the golden boy who knows what he wants, it’s hard to accept his flip-flopping without explanation. For instance, Sterling writes that he is “an atheistic, libertarian, social progressive.” Lee is most certainly not a 1990s social progressive, clearly seen through his views of maintaining the status quo in many instances. Diatribes about how blacks shouldn’t try to sue the City of Riverton for what he views as unjust benefits certainly aren’t social progressive ideals. After the trial results in lying lawyers and a City that doesn’t want to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, Lee’s views don’t undergo any sort of change and reflection on the events is sincerely lacking.
Lee also has a hard time seeing the struggle of others and doesn’t interact with any other socioeconomic class than that of an elderly black woman, Etta Jones’. Lower class whites are represented solely by M.J.’s terrible boyfriend and Lee doesn’t interact with him in any meaningful way. Writing off a whole portion of the population in Arkansas neglects an important aspect of racial relations.
Etta Jones lives in the neighborhood nearby Lee’s historic family home and he develops a relationship of tea time visits with her at the end of his daily runs. To say someone would drink hot tea in the Arkansan summer after a long run is laughable and iced sweet tea would have been more appropriate and Arkansan. Saying Lee is a social progressive appears to be a veiled way of saying “he’s okay with talking to blacks” but the fact of the matter is, that’s not what it means to be a social progressive in the South in the 1990s. Annie, his high school love interest who is now a teacher, displays a sense of not wanting to interact with blacks in the form of Etta Jones but the truth is, as a teacher in an integrated school, she would on a daily basis and the characterization as the opposite of Lee in terms of “social progressive” traits is hard to believe.
Since much of the story hinges on racial relations, comparing the white family’s struggles to the black family’s, we can conclude that whites are completely self-obsessed about social status and appearances with little remorse. Lee’s departure to California at the end of the novel shows there is no way to fix what Sterling seems to deem a broken and backwards part of the country. As an Arkansan, I find this wholly offensive and patronizing. At one point, someone openly comments that integration was the downfall of Riverton during a scene at the Country Club. While I didn’t grow up in 1990 in Arkansas, history tells me Bill Clinton would be elected Governor that November, beating out Sheffield Nelson who served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Only two years later Clinton would go on to become President and the atmosphere in Arkansas was charged with hope and opportunity.
A markedly different atmosphere, I’m sure, from what Sterling probably bases her story on. She graduated from Arkansas High School in Texarkana in 1961, so the summer after law school would have put her in soundly in the early 1970s at the latest, when such comments would have been commonplace while rich whites in Lee’s social class would have been fleeing to private Country Clubs where blacks were not permitted. But by the 1990s and the time of the novel, these kinds of outright racist comments wouldn’t be said in polite society, although they might have been thought privately or said among friends behind closed doors. Even the cover of the book should be a clear indicator to a potential reader that this novel isn’t set in the 90s in the author’s mind. Since Sterling started her own press to publish her book and likely selected the painting of what looks like 1940s black tenant housing, it reveals that her mind’s eye isn’t set in the 1990s for her novel.
It’s hard to put together’s Lee’s shock at the Country Club statement with his non-chalance in his relationship with Etta Jones. If he’d dealt with such rampant and obvious racism, it’s hard to see his first real interaction with a black woman as not engendering constant racial undertones. Instead, it’s widely ignored as a topic for discussion by Sterling during these sections of the novel. Why would a young white man from a well-off white family in a town so clearly against racial fraternization make friends with a black woman? Wouldn’t he worry about how it would make his family look? Or at least give thought to it, considering his mother’s propensity for appearances?
In terms of black characters, Etta Jones seems to be the mystical, wise other who seems to know everything in a very voodoo-esque way. Racial stereotypes abound in the characterization of Etta Jones and it’s hard to take her cardboard-cutout character seriously. While women like Etta likely do actually exist and I can’t fault Sterling for that, the power of Sterling’s commentary on race relations dies with positioning Etta as the omnipotent, dark other. Writing Etta as the mystical and dark other could have still been useful and interesting had she written it differently or addressed Etta’s propensity to see things the white characters don’t.
While a lot of the details about Arkansas are stuck in what seems like the years just after integration when whites are dealing with its effects, it’s clear that Sterling knows her stuff about California. Her scenes from Lee’s trip out West are the most vividly descriptive of the novel and the relationships between the West coasters probably are much more in tune with reality than the Arkansan side of things. If I have one recommendation for Sterling, it’s to write what she knows best–about something in California or to write about the time she spent growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s–instead of conflating two different periods of Arkansas history.
Overall, I don’t recommend you go pick up this novel. I’d wait for Sterling’s next try.
Disclosure: I was provided a copy of the book by the author for review. All opinions are my own.