The theme of nurturing friendship against all odds is a mainstay of fiction. In Jeanne Shirk’s novel, Unlikely Friends in an Unfriendly Time, those odds include the societal disapproval and threats from the Ku Klux Klan that accompany interracial interaction in a rural Iowa town.
The year is 1894, when prejudice ran rampant as some white people found themselves unable to adjust to the fact that blacks were no longer enslaved. Three girls are fast friends here: spunky and “plain” Frances; pretty Jessica; and Sally, who is, in the parlance of the book, “negro” or “colored.” Their experience of innocence lost is told in several voices but mostly seen through the eyes of Frances, a talented nurturer who longs to become a nurse at a time when this was not at all easy for women. (Frances’ experience is somewhat modeled on that of the author’s grandmother.)
Frances shows early talent for her calling when she is the first to find out about the trauma that is at the root of Jessica’s sudden plunge into depression. Frances also aids Sally in achieving her dream of becoming a teacher. Other characters also stand out in the book, including Sally’s father, who helps anyone in need, even an evil enemy.
Young adult readers are the natural target audience here, and Shirk’s goal seems to be to enlighten them about racism and inspire her readers to value friendship and pursue their dreams. The book achieves this, very straightforwardly, while offering telling details, such as the practical difficulties people faced in simply meeting to talk at a time when it was frowned upon for black and white people to socialize.
While Shirk’s workaday writing style is not memorable in itself, the power of her topic carries readers along enough to make this worthy of recommendation to young adults who enjoy historical fiction.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.