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We don't judge books by their covers --- or spines. Julius Lester's GUARDIAN may be the reason for that. This thin volume looks like it’s so short that it doesn't have enough time to be interesting, but it packs quite the punch.

Ansel Anderson works at the store owned by his father, Bert. He knows that someday he will grow up and take over from his dad, and then later he will have a son who will do the same. Things never change. His friend Willie, who is black, also knows that things never change. No matter what Ansel tells him, Willie always calls him Mister, and Willie seems content to be stuck in his role below Ansel. It's 1946, and things like segregation, sharecropping and racism are as natural as breathing.

When Ansel and Willie are out walking, they run into Zeph Davis, son of the richest man in town. The Davis family is legendary --- so legendary, in fact, that the town is named after them. It would be nothing to run into Zeph, except that he is horrible and mean, and happens to be walking with Mary Susan, who Ansel may have a crush on and who may just have a crush on Ansel as well. Everyone exchanges words, and Mary Susan, the preacher's daughter, insults Zeph, making him angry.

When a terrible crime occurs just a few days later, it is only Ansel and Willie who know the truth about what has happened, and only Ansel, as a young white man, who has the power to right the wrong. But he is just meek enough that correcting an error turns out to be very hard to do.

GUARDIAN is subtly poignant, and it shines not only in its simple story but also in its storytelling. Lester's language is beautiful, and his prologue is a poetic beginning to a serious, sad story. This turns what could be wholly depressing into something more hopeful, and it's not just because we know that that era is over. This isn't for the faint of heart, but it's just graphic enough to be effective without being gory. Some things in history were ugly and light should be shed --- Lester does this without losing his reader.

Both a wonderful novel and a history textbook, GUARDIAN would be an excellent read for a high school student. Lester includes an appendix, a letter to the reader and a satisfying epilogue from Ansel's point of view. This book is a gift to the historical fiction genre, because it neither glosses over the less shiny parts of history nor does it pretend that people who lived a long time ago were completely different from those who are living now. Ansel acts like a 14-year-old boy, has thoughts about girls as any boy entering puberty would, and is a bit scared of his father like any boy. This would be an excellent read for anyone, whether they like historical fiction or not.


Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gomez on October 18, 2011

by Julius Lester

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2008
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad
  • ISBN-10: 0061558907
  • ISBN-13: 9780061558900