Readers are transported to the 1960s in the deep South by Jesse, a gripping and engaging read. With a dynamic, inspirational protagonist amidst the struggle of segregation, Jesse is a compelling and gut wrenching fiction for anyone interested in past and present social issues.
Jesse takes place primarily in Alabama, with some flashbacks to Louisiana. The protagonist Jessup Christopher Savorié faces the challenges of being a black youth growing up in the sixties. Life was not easy for Jesse, and Burke does a fine job bringing this fictitious character to life, while dealing with the pain and hurt of racism in the segregated South.
As the story unfolds, Jesse’s life doesn’t start off so well. He is frequently called out by a class bully for having black lineage, but Jesse resists no attacks that come his way, either physical or verbal. Jesse initially is the only black student at Jess Rulam School, and he learns to be quiet and keep to himself.
We get our perspective of Jessie through the eyes of a classmate named Matt. Matt is the narrator of the book and tells us early on,
“The first time I felt pity was when I saw Jessup Christopher Savorié. Oh, I had felt the sympathy for farm animals that were hurt, birds that tumbled out of the nest and such in my brief six years, but this was different, and I didn’t like it. My young brain couldn’t quite process what I was supposed to do. Helping someone is what the grownups do, so I just sat in my seat and did nothing.”
The racial abuse Matt witnesses is typical for the era only magnifies itself when the nearby, all black school named Orr closes and the black student population is sent to the white Jess Rulam high school. Things certainly aren’t getting much better, but there is one glimmer of hope for Jesse and his classmates. The book tells the tale of not only Jesse’s coming of age, but of a community struggling to overcome racial divide.
Jesse can play football and he can play it well. Amidst all the hate and racial angst Jesse, reluctantly, draws the focus away from the social issues of the day and unites an entire community.
As one character states, “Did you ever notice it’s always the ones with inauspicious starts that do things in the world— you know, the ones that make a difference.” In one magical game Jesse caused a miracle. A miracle that drew the attention of Coach Bear Bryant of Alabama football lore.
“That one huge dose of humanity known as Jessup Christopher Savorié had taught the entire school, town, and community what it was like to be a human being— to care for something other than yourself, to trouble yourself for others.”
Pushing through the dense racism of the South stands a tall and proud character. Burke has crafted Jesse as a character that teaches us all a lesson in how to live harmoniously with our fellow man. Jesse is a fearless figure of equality in a time and place where racism ran rampantly.
Burke shines a light on a subject matter not often spoken of beyond hushed whispers amongst like-minded friends. He tackles sensitive social issues that we still face today in the United States. The narrative is vivid in its details and plucks at your heartstrings as you read about children facing adult issues at a young age.
A moving, coming of age story set in a hapless time, Jesse demonstrates how the power of love and friendship triumphs over discrimination in a place where all hope seems lost and the odds are against you.