It’s 1959 in Benevolence, Florida, and life is as sweet as a Valencia orange for 15-year-old Dove Alderman. Whether she’s sipping cherry Cokes with her girlfriends and listening to the Everly Brothers, eating key lime pie made by her housekeeper, Delia, or cruising around town with the coolest boy in school in his silver-blue T-bird convertible, Dove’s days are as smooth and warm as the soft sand in her father’s orange groves.
But there’s trouble brewing among the local migrant workers. Mysterious fires have broken out, and rumors are spreading that disgruntled pickers are to blame. Suddenly, black and white become a muddy shade of gray, and whispers of the KKK drift through the Southern air like sighs. The Klan could never exist in a place like Benevolence, Dove tells herself. Or could it?
Set in the late 1950s, McDonald's (Swallowing Stones) engrossing, often brutal novel centers on Dove Alderman, the white daughter of an orange grower prominent in their Florida town, ironically named Benevolence. Small fires have been sparking across town, and Dove knows that "people have begun looking around for somebody to blame"; even so, after lightning strikes her barn, she's horrified that folks are saying that "some colored person" set fire to it. The mostly black and Mexican pickers are boycotting the overpriced store at the migrant camp, and rumors rage that they are responsible for the fires. Acting on some newfound, painful knowledge, Dove tails her dad one night and spies the beginning of a KKK gathering where even her boyfriend is in attendance. Dove, a realistically drawn character, has a complex outlook on race. She feels sick when she sees Gator, her black childhood friend, beaten up for talking to a white girl on Main Street, but she doesn't intervene, because she is "afraid of what folks might think"; later, she calls the idea of Gator dating the girl "just plain unnatural." Readers should be prepared for some upsetting language and violence as McDonald provides a gritty picture of the rules that dictate Dove's world. The suspense stays taut as Dove begins to uncover the mystery, and then events escalate to a blaze. While the resolution seems rather fortunate and unlikely, it is also cathartic, and the audience will feel well rewarded. Ages 12-up.