History Mystery #14: Circle of Fire

Author: Evelyn Coleman

Illustrators: Laszlo Kubinyi and Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2001

Setting:  rural Tennessee, 1958


Twelve-year-old Mendy Thompson isn't having a very good summer. She's been stuck at home with her mother and five-year-old brother--her other siblings are with relatives and her blacksmith/plumber father works long hours. Mrs. Thompson wants Mendy to behave like a proper lady, and summer's been full of lessons. Even playing the piano, something that Mendy used to enjoy and is naturally talented at, has become a boring chore. She's happy for any opportunity to slip away to a special, secret clearing she's found in the woods, and spend time with her friend Jeffrey and with Mr. Hare, a rabbit she saved from a trap her father set.

But Mendy has to keep the clearing secret, since it's technically on someone else's property. She also has to keep her meetings with Jeffrey secret--she's black and he's white, and their parents don't approve of them playing together. Mendy's grandmother never seemed to mind, but she died last summer and since Christmas Mendy and Jeffrey have been forbidden to spend time together. The two aren't ready to give up their friendship, and continue to meet in secret. But Mrs. Thompson catches Mendy and Jeffrey hanging out in a nearby creek, and scolds them enough that Jeffrey promises to never talk to Mendy again. In exchange, Mrs. Thompson won't tell Jeffrey's father. Mendy feels betrayed by her best friend--no, former best friend.

Mendy's clearing is soon no secret either: she finds litter that indicates other people are meeting there, and tossing the cigar butts and empty beer bottles around. She figures it must be some other kids, and tries to scare them away by setting a sort of trap. She hides a beehive under a pile of grass and puts her bowie knife in the pile so that when the knife is pulled, the bees will be angered and swarm to defend the hive. But the next time she's at the clearing, the trap has been found out...and her knife is stuck in the corpse of Mr. Hare. The rabbit was nearly tame, and would have trusted anyone. Mendy feels terribly guilty for visiting the rabbit again and again. If she'd left him along he would have reverted to being completely wild and not been killed. She sets another trap in relation, one that will get whoever killed Mr. Hare bit by a harmless water snake that looks like venomous copperhead. While she's in the clearing, she hears someone groaning.

She's shocked to find Aunt Sis, an elderly woman, old enough that she was born a slave. She's disoriented (not uncommon for the woman, who seems to have bouts of senility) and scared of something. Mendy calms Aunt Sis down and gets her home, cleaned, fed, and in bed. Only then does she look at the cloth Aunt Sis was holding, and seemed so scared of it. It has a peculiar symbol, a white cross with a red drop in the center. Mr. Hare was wrapped in a bit of fabric with the same symbol. Whoever killed Mr. Hare must have scared Aunt Sis enough for her to hide in the woods and get lost. The other people using the clearing aren't just kids. They're dangerous. Mendy dismantles her second trap, and replaces it with a different one involving a skunk. She doesn't want revenge, she just wants to keep whoever is coming away from Aunt Sis. She slips out the next night to see if the skunk is still there or has escaped (she used some herbs to make it sleepy). Instead she finds herself stumbling across a KKK meeting. They don't see her, and she overhears that they want to cause some sort of trouble at the Highlander School, where her father does work sometimes.

The next chance she gets, Mendy signals for Jeffrey to meet her. He does, though he's clearly nervous he'll get caught. Apparently the talk is that Mendy and Jeffrey are dating, and in their time and place interracial marriage is illegal. Their parents are trying to keep them apart to keep them safe. He tells Mendy about the KKK and how the organization can be dangerous. Mendy knows they need to find out who in the town belongs to the KKK so they can keep the Highlander School safe--after all, Eleanor Roosevelt is scheduled to speak there soon. She's able to see that her trap was sprung, so at least one secret KKK member will be marked with skunk spray. Once they know who's planning to cause trouble, they can go to the sheriff. Mendy and Jeffrey spy on the clearing to try to identify who is under the white robes. They have three days before Mrs. Roosevelt's speech. They spend a day looking around the town, trying to pick out who had those distinctive shoes or that particular ring. Mendy is horrified to recognize several men she knows as KKK members. Working separately, they find half a dozen members and then meet to go to the sheriff.

But as they're about to go in, they overhear him talking with his deputy. They're preparing a press release for after the attack on the Highlander School. They're part of the plot. And they tell Jeffrey (Mendy is hiding) all about it, figuring he'd be proud--because his father is a member of the KKK. The children are devastated. Jeffrey especially has trouble deciding what to do; he doesn't want to go against his father, but the plot could kill people. Mendy decides to alert the Highlander School herself. Her father is ill and in a hospital and her mother's gone to visit him. Mendy leaves her brother Ben with Aunt Sis (who hasn't had any of her confused spells lately), and heads for the Highlander School. In the dark, she sets several small steel traps--nothing that would kill or maim a person, but big enough to stop anyone sneaking in to set a bomb. She's relieved when Jeffrey shows up, and helps her.

Then a man sets one of the traps--he's a KKK member. Another man is behind the children in the woods, and suddenly Jeffrey's father is in front, threatening to shoot the other man. It turns out that he's undercover, and told the FBI about the plot. He has a sheriff from Memphis with him, and they arrest the two men.

Mrs. Roosevelt is able to give her speech safely, with Mendy, Ben, and her parents, both well, in attendance. Jeffrey's father even introduces Mendy to Mrs. Roosevelt, as the girl who helped foil the plot.

A Peek into the Past

The book is based on a real-life event. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was scheduled to speak at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center), a non-segregated gathering place. Tennessee and other southern states had segregation laws (Jim Crow laws) in place at the time, and places that allowed people of different races to interact were despised by some white people in power. Back then, the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful organization and had members in high political offices. The local law enforcement knew that the KKK planned to disrupt and maybe even bomb the event, but sided with the KKK and only took steps to prevent an attack because an undercover informant told the FBI about the plot. Highlander was an important part of the civil rights movement. Among the people who studied there were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks.


Dedicated to "educator Myles Horton, his wife, musician Zilphia Horton, children's book author May Justus, and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt. These four people risked their lives for truth and justice. And to my editor, Peg Ross, a woman who hears the voices of all people." The author thanks other people in an author's note: the people at the Highlander Research and Education Center, especially the librarian Juanita Householder, Joseph Lugan, Dr. Scott Bates, Dora Turner, Ms. (Sis) Swain, Guy and Candie Carawan, Troy Fore, Calvin Johnson, Stella K. Hershan, and Ernest and Jackie Varner.

Mendy has six siblings. The older ones, John, Clara, and Morris, are with their uncle in Georgia picking peaches, and eleven-year-old twins Lilly and Sam are staying with an aunt in Chattanooga so they can attend a Bible school.

In the "About the Author" section, Coleman reminisces about a dear childhood friend named Carla. They were very close until they were twelve, when Carla started shutting Coleman out. Coleman's mother surmised that the new white families who had moved into the neighborhood had shunned Carla, also white, for playing with Coleman, who is black. Coleman mentions that the hurt took a long time to get over, and she longs for the day when racial barriers don't exists... and that she still misses Carla.

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