• Review
By – May 18, 2015

The fifti­eth anniver­sary of Free­dom Sum­mer in 2014 was the cause for broad­casts and reunions that brought many par­tic­i­pants out of obscu­ri­ty. Simone Zelitch’s nov­el Wave­land: One Woman’s Sto­ry of Free­dom Sum­mer is based on the nar­ra­tive of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Free­dom Project, in which about 1,000 most­ly white, most­ly mid­dle class col­lege-age vol­un­teers (many of whom were Jew­ish) went to the Mag­no­lia State in 1964. Their mis­sion was to reg­is­ter blacks to vote and run Free­dom Schools.

Archival doc­u­ments and news­pa­per clip­pings from the Free­dom Sum­mer show ide­al­is­tic young peo­ple sweat­ing through starched blous­es in makeshift schools and walk­ing door-to-door reg­is­ter­ing poten­tial vot­ers, many of whom were share­crop­pers and domes­tic work­ers liv­ing in shacks. Wave­land, Mis­sis­sip­pi was one of the towns in which Free­dom Sum­mer vol­un­teers did their good work. In the epony­mous nov­el, Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nist Beth Fine must con­vince her cold, aca­d­e­m­ic father that par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Sum­mer Project is a good idea. A local Mis­sis­sip­pi­an enchants Beth and draws her into the project, but things do not go well for Zelitch’s protagonist.

Simone Zelitch cap­tures the dis­ci­pline, pas­sion, and con­fu­sion of the civ­il rights move­ment of the ear­ly 1960s that pushed for jus­tice by build­ing a civic and open soci­ety. At first Beth does every­thing wrong — hit­ting a cow, shoot­ing at an intrud­er in a non­vi­o­lent move­ment, and rous­ing rumors in the small town — but her char­ac­ter changes and grows over time.The por­tray­als of snob­bish North­ern Jews, mis­un­der­stood Jew­ish South­ern­ers, and good ole boys” show the social com­plex­i­ties of 1964. Beth’s inter­ra­cial roman­tic rela­tion­ship seems doomed. She leaves then returns to the move­ment. She lingers on even when whites are banned from SNCC. The nov­el takes read­ers to the dra­mat­ic Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, where ide­al­is­tic mem­bers of the Free­dom Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty nego­ti­ate for seats on the floor.

Wave­land exam­ines the role of women in the move­ment and in our soci­ety as well as inter­ra­cial rela­tions and iden­ti­ty. The nov­el is both a good read and an inter­est­ing exam­i­na­tion of iden­ti­ty and what is it to be an Amer­i­can. His­tor­i­cal resources on Free­dom Sum­mer at the end of the book pro­vide resources for read­ers hun­gry for more.

Discussion Questions