Thirteen-year-old Billie Simms doesn’t think her hometown of Anniston, Alabama, should be segregated, but few of the town’s residents share her opinion. As equality spreads across the country and the Civil Rights Movement gathers momentum, Billie can’t help but feel stuck–and helpless–in a stubborn town too set in its ways to realize that the world is passing it by. So when Billie learns that the Freedom Riders, a group of peace activists riding interstate buses to protest segregation, will be traveling through Anniston on their way to Montgomery, she thinks that maybe change is finally coming and her quiet little town will shed itself of its antiquated views. But what starts as a series of angry grumbles soon turns to brutality as Anniston residents show just how deep their racism runs. The Freedom Riders will resume their ride to Montgomery, and Billie is now faced with a choice: stand idly by in silence or take a stand for what she believes in. Through her own decisions and actions and a few unlikely friendships, Billie is about to come to grips with the deep-seated prejudice of those she once thought she knew, and with her own inherent racism that she didn’t even know she had.
Holy problematic book! By the time I got to about Chapter 25, I was just reading dialogue Night On Fire and skimming paragraphs because I couldn’t get myself to keep pretending to care about the story.
Sigh. Alright, lots to talk about and call out here. But the first order of business, I am adding a disclaimer here that I’m white, so I can’t catch every little thing that’s wrong with this story. Honestly, the only reason I’m writing so much because it looks like only a couple other people have called anything out in the other reviews on Goodreads [where this review was originally posted], so I figured someone who could catch a thing or two should write about it. And why was I able to realize how problematic this book is? Is it because I’m that special white person that magically unlearned racism in a couple weeks, like our lovely protagonist, Billie? No! It’s because the problems Night On Fire has are things that people of color have been complaining about forever. So why is stuff like this still being published? Why are we not listening?
Alrighty, so the most obvious problem here is Billie Sims, the main character, who is a white 13-year-old girl from Alabama living through the US civil rights movement. She begins to notice how prevalent racism and prejudice are in her community when the Freedom Riders come to town. Billie decides she doesn’t want to sit back and watch anymore. She wants to become a rider. In summary, Billie Sims is nothing short of a White Savior. The problem with this is that story becomes just a narrative that tells us, white people, that if we, too, recognize racism and fight against it like Billie does, we can stop feeling bad about our privilege but still believe that we belong on top because we are doing such good things for people of color.
Not to mention, it pushes characters like Jarmaine Jones down to nothing but a sidekick when this is her history. This is her story. But it’s not really Jarmaine’s story, is it? No, it’s Billie’s. Because although Jarmaine starts out as a strong character, going up on stage at the county spelling bee to protest the fact that students of color were not allowed to participate, Jarmaine loses that fire rather quickly. It seems that as soon as she and Billie start talking to each other after the spelling bee, Jarmaine becomes nothing but the minority character that’s kept around to reassure the privileged character that they’re doing good.
To give the book one little praise (not that it really deserves it), if you squint and ignore the fact that this is a book about a white girl during the US civil rights movement of the 1960s, it does give readers some useful historical information without making it sound like a textbook. Unfortunately, this information is presented in the form of Billie realizing how different life is between white people and people of color, thus causing her to become the white savior that she is.
Now onto more minor things. And by minor, I mean things that are more likely to go under the radar, not things that are supposedly less harmful. The first thing that rubbed me the wrong way was actually not that the protagonist is from the privileged group instead of the marginalized group (because I’m still learning and there is a lot to learn). It was in the third chapter when Billie describes Lavender, her family’s maid as, “a large woman with coffee-colored skin…”
I mean, I thought we established that this isn’t how you write about skin color, but I guess not. That also wasn’t the only incident. Later on in Night On Fire, Billie compares herself and Jarmaine to a hot fudge sundae with vanilla ice cream. She says that her mom calls that type of sundae “black and whites,” so Billie finds it appropriate to compare herself and her new black friend to this food because of their skin color. *facepalm*
Next, there are a few times when Jarmaine tells Billie that she doesn’t have to accompany Jarmaine to places or that she doesn’t have to sit with Jarmaine on the bus. Based off of the small protest that Jarmaine starts at the county spelling bee, I totally believe that Jarmaine can handle anything. Sure, it’s nice to have a friend, but having Billie be that friend just sends the message that people of color are hopeless without white people helping them along, which is not true. And then on the bus ride in Chapter Twenty One, suddenly Jarmaine is so quiet that the security guard can’t hear her trying to stand up for herself. Where did that little girl fueled by fire from the spelling bee go? Why does Billie suddenly have to save her? UGH
Something I should’ve noticed about the cover right away, (but didn’t because admittedly, the cover is aesthetically pleasing) is that you can clearly tell that the white girl (Billie) is the one ringing the bell while the girl of color (Jarmaine) just stands there. But how does the bell ringing go down in the book? Well, Jarmaine is the first to ring the bell, but it’s only when one of the ladies at the church is merely showing them the bell. Her ringing it is really just for show.
When Billie rings the bell it’s important, because she’s ringing it for the people of color who are victims of violent crimes. She’s ringing it for her white friends and family who she believes can learn to be better like she has. She’s ringing it for you, Dear Reader, because you, too, can decide to surpass allyship and become a white savior, shouting your voice louder than the people of the marginalized group. I just… Of course, of course! The white character gets the plot-altering action in a book about the civil rights movement. It’s only 2017, why should we expect differently?
tl;dr I think Night On Fire could have been great if it were written by an author of color with a protagonist of color. Unfortunately, that’s not at all what this book is.
Final thought: *sigh* Okay, I’m done now. Like I said, this is review is nowhere near complete because the lens I see life through is rather limited, but since I saw the problems, I figured I’d point them out. If anyone (mainly those directly affected by this book) has anything to add, please feel free to do so! Now here’s my recommendation: pick up a different book, Night On Fire is not worth anyone’s time