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Of King and Country

Plus, Ellen Foster, older and wiser, returns.



If the recent death of Coretta Scott King reminded Americans of the struggle for civil rights in this country, Taylor Branch in At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon and Schuster) reminds readers just how hard that struggle was in terms of personal commitment, bravery, self-sacrifice, and death itself.

The book is the final volume of Branch's three-volume study of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a 20-year project that started with Parting the Waters (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and continued with Pillar of Fire. The trilogy is in no way limited to King, however. Its subject, spelled out in the subtitle, is America itself, a country, finally, by the middle of the 20th century, struggling to fulfill its founding promise, a struggle involving leaders and citizens alike.

The promise King kept was nonviolent social change, despite the rising unrest in the streets. The promise President Lyndon Johnson kept was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, despite opposition inside and outside of Congress. The promise FBI director J. Edgar Hoover broke was to uphold the law. The legacy of each you can judge for yourself: today's debate to broaden what we mean by civil rights and today's warrantless wire-tapping by an administration bent on secrecy.

Branch describes that legacy best in his epilogue after close to 800 thoroughly researched, readable pages: dominant in American politics now: a shift in patriotism "from citizenship to command," shrinkage of the "public space," government -- full, participatory -- endangered or government itself, in the minds of reactionaries, bad.

At Canaan's Edge is history writing at its finest, as informative as it is accessible. It could also serve as a critical wakeup call.

Taylor Branch will discuss and sign copies of At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 at the National Civil Rights Museum on Thursday, February 16th, at 7 p.m.

When we last heard from Ellen Foster, in the novel Ellen Foster (1987) by Kaye Gibbons, she was a 10-year-old in the small-town South in the early 1970s. She'd managed to survive the suicide of her mentally ill mother, the abuse (and death) of her alcoholic father, and a set of foster-care failures -- all this with uncommon intelligence and astounding good grace.

When we meet Ellen again, in Gibbons' new The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster (Harcourt), she's writing to the president of Harvard to ask that he take her application seriously and, please, could she start the next term? This from a 15-year-old who also writes, "I can only imagine the daily awe of learning while surrounded by marble columns featuring the sayings of Aristotle, Homer and others, New England fall foliage, and perhaps some flying butresses."

Right about the learning and the foliage; wrong about the marble and Harvard ever going Gothic. But precocious Ellen Foster certainly is, with this to show for it: In place of the earlier book's simple, declarative manner of speaking, here the first-person narrative is impressionistic, elliptical, allusive, and to readers new to Ellen's way of thinking, sometimes maddening.

A sign of the girl's intellectual progress (and the author's literary advancement)? Or, a more interesting possibility, a sign of something as unhinged in the girl as it was in the mother? A doctor's report on what was the matter with Mother does do some climactic clearing up. Just as Ellen's new foster mother, Laura, does do the girl a whole world of good. So too some late-breaking, welcoming words from a certain Harvard president, here to suggest: Ellen Foster and the life all around her -- to be continued.

Kaye Gibbons will read from and sign copies of The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster at Burke's Book Store on Saturday, February 18th, from 1 to 3 p.m. The reading begins at 2 p.m.

Speaking of Harvard: Speaking at the Church of the Holy Communion on Tuesday, February 21st, at 7 p.m.: Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard and author of A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation.

And speaking of (collegiate) Gothic: Speaking (and signing) at Davis-Kidd on Tuesday, February 21st, at 6 p.m.: Steve McKenzie, professor of religion at Rhodes and author of How To Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature. Same night as Eck, but an hour earlier. You've got time to make both. From Davis-Kidd, make a beeline north, up Perkins to Walnut Grove.

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