The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson

The Air Between UsNearly a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision opened the door to school desegregation, the residents of Revere, Miss., are facing the reality that the federal government will now require communities in the South to actively integrate their schools. It is against this backdrop that Deborah Johnson’s The Air Between Us takes place.

The novel follows the lives of two prominent physicians in town – one black, one white. These doctors’ and their families’ lives swirl around a central character named Melba Obrenski, who is as ambiguous as the issue of race and class is in this small Southern town. A transplant from New Orleans, she is (as her sign reads) a “Genuine Creole Card Reader.” She does seem to have mystical powers, and folks white and black, rich and poor, come to her to learn more about their futures.

Adding to the mystery of Melba is the fact that she is light enough that it is not readily known that she is, in fact, black. She takes pride in the fact that she has been integrating lunch counters in Revere long before laws required it.

Melba’s ambiguity and complexity is emblematic of all the characters and issues revealed to us in this engrossing book. It is not the black Dr. Reese Jackson who is pushing for full school integration, but his privileged (and white) counterpart, Dr. Cooper Connelly. The bigoted and authoritarian Jack Rand Connelly, father of Cooper, is rendered with compassion and understanding by Johnson, who layers the character with a history of poverty and his commitment to help the poor. We even have a strict segregationist who joins the choir of a black church because he likes their music best.

Indeed, The Air Between Us, a book laced with mystery and intrigue, is also a study of the many shades of gray in what is too often perceived to be a very “black and white” issue of prejudice and segregation in the deep South. A reading group guide and interview with the author is included.

Amistad/HarperCollins; ISBN 978-0-06125-558-8; $13.99.
The Air Between Us: Reading Guide

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