Dawnie Rae lives in Hadley, Virginia in the early 1950's, when it was still segregated, both in neighborhoods and schools. She lived with her momma, who took in washing, her father, a deliveryman for the local dairy, and her brother, Goober, who is a little "special". She receives a diary for her birthday from her brother, and uses it to record her life, and her fascination with the civil rights struggle then taking place. She imagines herself writing to famous Black people, like Jackie Robinsons, Martin Luther King, and others, asking how they feel about the changes taking place in American society.
Dawnie goes to school at the local all-black school, Mary McLeod Bethune, but it's not the best place to go to school, as all of its books are old and out of date. Despite this, Dawnie is the smartest student in the school. But she and her best friend, Yolanda, both wish they could go to the other school in town, Prettyman Coburn School, which lives up to its first name. But they can't go, because that school is for white children only.
During the summer, though, "Separate but equal" educational facilities are struck down by the courts, and Dawnie and several other children from Bethune school are visited by Equal rights workers seeking smart black children to attend all white schools and integrate them. However, Dawnie's parents are the only ones to accept this offer. Even Yolanda, who is almost as smart as Dawnie and has dreamed of entering Prettyman, turn down the offer.
The white people in town attempt to close down the school to stop Dawnie from attending, and some of the most prejudiced members of the community take their children out of the school, but eventually Dawnie gets her chance to go to school, where she is picked on by her fellow students, discriminated against by the teachers and turned into the janitor for her classroom, making her do the job of cleaning up before she can join the other kids at recess. Even at home, her father is fired from his job at the Dairy, which is owned by a white man.
But Dawnie perseveres, even when her old friends accuse her of wanting to be white. She finally gets a friend at school, a white Jewish girl from New York City whose family moved to Virginia, and who is equally an outcast for her religion, and the black community decides to boycott the local Dairy, who does most of its business with the black community, and stands strong together, even if not everyone agrees with Dawnie's parents and sending her to Prettyman.
But as the school year draws to an end, the entire school must take a test to see who will be the valedictorian of the class and who will be able to ring the new Bell that is being installed to call students to class. Will Dawnie be the new bell-ringer, or will the forces of hatred, bigotry and racism triumph over her intelligence and preservance to deny her the job? And what will happen to Dawnie's family?
I enjoyed reading this book, which I felt had a lot of parallels to marriage rights for gay people today. Setting up "Civil unions" as marriage for gay people strikes me as the same "separate but equal" deal that had been struck down when it came to educational facilities. And that was hardly equal.
Dawnie Rae comes across as a very strong young woman. She is subject to a lot of discrimination when she changes schools- not just from the white students and teachers, but also from her former friends and neighbors, who think it's bad of her to try and better herself by going to Prettyman Coburn. And while not all the white teachers are against her (there is one male history teacher from Boston who treats her the same as he treats the other students), he gets fired for writing a letter to the editor of the local paper in support of her going to Prettyman Coburn. But he doesn't leave Virginia, he stays to work for desegregation.
Reading this book was a wonderful, eye-opening experience, and I enjoyed the story and the characters. My only quibble with the book (and, indeed, all the Dear America books) is how many of the characters end up unmarried, and instead, seem married to their careers. It seems like a significant number of them do. But other than that, I have nothing but praise for the books, and that includes this one. Highly recommended.