Julius Lester's Guardian is a slim novel with tremendous impact. At under 120 pages, Lester's book is a powerful story set in one of the darkest periods in America's history, told with economy and an honesty as unflinching and intense as the cover's image.
In Guardian we meet 14 year old Ansel Anderson, whose father owns and manages the General Store in Davis, a small town in the Deep South of the United States. It is 1946, and prejudice runs deep in the community, lurking beneath the surface of day-to-day interactions between black and white neighbors. Ansel feels stuck in Davis, and he wonders how he will ever take up the family business from his father when the time comes. In spite of his father's misgivings, Ansel is friendly with a young black kid, Willie, who works for his family. The two boys like to sneak off to go fishing on the hottest summer afternoons. The story unfolds over 6 days, and proves how lives can be changed forever in the shortest time, especially when people live in a climate of hatred, fear and gross imbalance of power.
Lester establishes an immediate sense of tension and foreboding in his narrative. Part of this comes from the choice for point-of-view. The third-person present tense makes you feel like you are watching things unfold as the characters experience them, like a play. The weather is part of the drama here too. It's hot, really hot and close and "heavy as a broken heart." This gives you the feeling that something nasty and violent is coming, right from the start. And it is coming. Characters are developed in this short novel with as much realism and complexity, if not more, than you often find in much longer works. Once you start reading, it's hard to put this story down, in part because you can sense what is coming.
Guardian is a novel about human ugliness and the power of each person to make choices, even in desperate times. It's about how people come to terms with their actions and their inaction. This is not an uplifting book, but it is not without hope. It should inspire readers to learn more about this historical period, and Lester offers a starting place for further investigations in his author's note at the end of his novel. This is a book that should be passed on after it's read.