While the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles tore at the fabric of society, changes sweeping the country passed by the community where Alison lived like the waters of the St. Francis River. As it had been since the time of slavery, everyone in Forrest Town, Arkansas, knew their place.
When Alison finds the decaying, beaten body of a black man snagged along the riverbank, she has an epiphany: her children will be born into a hateful society where violence against blacks is accepted, even encouraged. Deeply troubled, she begins a mind-opening and life-altering journey that will make her more steadfast and convicted in her belief that all people should be treated equal. It’s an uphill struggle against everything she has ever been taught.
Her brother, Jake, and her fiancé, Jimmy Lee, are among those who brutalize black youths for fun, and most of the town, including the police and Alison’s father, turn a blind eye. She speaks out timidly when she can, but is soundly rebuffed or ignored. Desegregation events of the day swirl around her, sending her life into a tailspin as she grows stronger in character and more determined to stand up for what is right.
In a community where white woman are not even allowed to show kindness to a black child, Alison yearns to know more about the dead man and the families being traumatized by Jimmy Lee and his bullies. She is driven to show kindness to the victims, even if only to say she is sorry for their grief.
Although engaged to Jimmy Lee, Alison is repulsed by his racism, drinking and meanness. She tries to fend him off as he leaves for college, but in a tragic scene reminiscent of the “Vagina Monologues,” he has his way with her. And here Melissa Foster’s writing genius shines. On the one hand, Alison and Jimmy have been intimate and planning marriage for some time. On the other, she is growing to hate his character. The internal conflict is stunning—a woman’s perspective that should be required reading for every redneck in the country.
Burdened with enormous misgivings over her upcoming wedding, Alison inadvertently meets a gentle soul named Jackson, the brother of a young man beat up by Jimmy Lee. Jackson is home on military leave. He has experienced a world where color doesn’t matter, where men of all races fight side-by-side in war, but he also knows the danger of speaking to a white woman in Forrest Town. Alison is drawn to Jackson’s kind nature like a moth to flame, and the two come to know each other through forbidden rendezvous. Before Jackson returns to the Army, Alison gives in to deep feeling of love for him, and her life begins to unravel in terrifying ways.
Alison’s internal struggle mirrors the racial struggle within the country. Her relationships with her family, her husband and her community are both strengthened and destroyed as the true nature of people are revealed by the conflicts of the time. I will not expose the turmoil Alison goes through with Jimmy Lee after her marriage, or how her relationship with her family turns out, but I will say this: if you have ever wondered what it would be like to enter the inner conflicts of a young woman driven by her conscience, then Have No Shame is for you. Readers will be both saddened and uplifted by this compelling, poignant and important five-star read … and they won’t be able to put it down until they reach the end. Bravo, Melissa Foster!
The opinions expressed in this review are those of James L. Hatch, who is solely responsible for its content.