THE OUTSKIRTS OF HOPE
by Jo Ivester
Published in 2015 by She Writes Press.
Reviewed by Christine Baleshta.
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” This quote by Robert Kennedy could well be the mantra of Jo Ivestor’s idealistic father as he enlists in President Johnson’s war on poverty and moves his family from Massachusetts to open a clinic in the poorest place in the nation. Leon Kruger announces one afternoon that the family is moving to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, leaving Jo’s mother, Aura, in shock. The last thing she wants is to be torn from family and friends, but soon finds herself driving through miles of cotton fields to an all black town settled by ex-slaves.
Leon immediately immerses himself in his responsibilities at the clinic as Jo and her brothers begin school, but Aura feels without purpose. Urged by her husband and recruited by the school’s superintendent, she begins teaching English at the town’s high school and discovers her calling. Her sincere desire to help her students gain a sense of who they can become enables Aura to overcome her inexperience and lack of confidence. Aura challenges her students to change their lives, earning their respect and admiration.
While Aura thrives, her eleven year-old daughter struggles to grow up in a black town. Contrasting Aura’s voice with young Jo’s, Ivester creates an interesting dialogue between two generations with two different perspectives. Jo and her brothers are the only white students in the school system and her only friends are the boys she plays football with. Aura and Leon assume Jo and her brothers will easily assimilate, failing to notice her difficulties until a tragic incident forces them to face the reality of a white family living in a black town.
Told primarily in Aura’s voice, the book focuses on Aura’s experiences in the classroom and her relationship and interactions with her students. The Outskirts of Hope is really her story. Through her eyes we experience the injustices of segregation and the threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, the book gives only glimpses of the Krugers’ home and community life. Though Aura mentions bridge games with neighbors and invitations to church functions, she laments she made no close friends and other white families saw them as interfering with their social structure. Black and white photos from the family album illustrate a blurred sense of Mound Bayou and the surrounding Delta landscape.
The Outskirts of Hope is both a memoir and a window into life in the Deep South. Written in simple narrative form, it is an enlightening as well as a thought-provoking book about one teacher who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement. In light of the ongoing bitter national conversation about race, Jo Ivestor has written a timely book that reminds us that some issues remain unresolved.
Christine Baleshta lives in Austin, Texas. She is the author of Looking for 527, and her essays have appeared in naturewriting.com, Yellowstone Experiences, and wolftracker.com.