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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 06:49 pm

Telling the story of the 1908 riot

Springfield’s Melinda McDonald describes the horror from a unique perspective

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Water and Fire By Melinda McDonald, CreateSpace, 2008, 176 pages, $12

This novel of historical fiction, on the Springfield race riot of 1908 by Springfieldian Melinda McDonald, is told from a unique point of view. Sheba Tully, a young black woman, obtains a housemaid position in the home of Susan Lawrence Dana. Dana is at the pinnacle of Springfield society, as well as its richest woman, and this allows Tully to wait on table for Gov. Charles Deneen, his wife, and other Springfield notables; overhear conversations; and tune in on kitchen gossip. She's a good seamstress, and Dana loans her to society friends. Tully eventually opens a dressmaking shop on a racially mixed street of small businesses in downtown Springfield, the spring before the riot.

The book opens when Tully, asleep in the room over her business, awakens to breaking glass, mobs cheering, and fire. Her shop, with other black businesses, is being attacked. She escapes and creeps through streets of the "ravaged downtown" to the safety of Dana's house.

It's good that the book lets us know what's coming, for it now backtracks two years and we follow Tully's life, which could fool readers into thinking that the book is merely intended to let us know what Springfield's people and places were like in 1908, through the eyes of a spunky young woman and also, in alternating chapters, of a young white reporter whose abolitionist father owns a popular Springfield restaurant. We meet not only the governor but also Frank Lloyd Wright, who reproves Susan Dana for changes in "his" house, and a young Vachel Lindsay, who performs a reading there. We recognize the Bunns, father and son. We spend time in the notorious Levee district, at the reservoir, at Mildred Park, the Illinois Watch Factory, Moonlight Gardens, several Springfield newspapers, the Badlands, and more. All are real Springfield people and places. Through these somewhat meandering chapters we can recognize mounting racial tension and view the segregation and hatred that Tully and other black residents must face.

McDonald has been a docent at the Dana-Thomas House for a number of years, so she knows well its history and architecture. She has researched this book meticulously, using the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, issues of Springfield newspapers, and oral-history tapes housed at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She also leaned considerably on Roberta Senechal's Sociogenesis of a Race Riot. Although McDonald's main characters are fictional, the rest are not falsified. She uses historical fiction's liberty to fill occasional holes, to speculate, to create conversations.

This is a book well worth reading and reading now. McDonald writes a clear, readable prose. She handles dialect well and doesn't shy from the ugly epithets necessary to this account. She may be a bit slow getting to the riot, but it's for good reason, and once there she provides action aplenty. And you care, for she's described characters, real or fictional, that you can relate to. A bonus, in addition to learning details of a shameful time in our past, is all we learn of Springfield. This might send us to the Sangamon Valley Collection ourselves: Is the Mildred Amusement Park now Bunn Park? What reservoir? And whatever happened to Edwards School, on whose playground one of the lynchings took place?

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry

editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English

at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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