Life Lines: the Lanier Phillips Story by Christine Welldon

3.5 stars
Newfoundlanders are renowned for their generosity and readiness to step up and help one another and anyone in need. This is a story about how a disaster, and their responses to it, became the fulcrum that enabled one man to change his own life, and consequently, the lives of many others. 

Lanier Phillips was born in 1923 in Lithonia, Georgia. From early on he was forced to deal with racism and hatred. By the time he was 17 he had a deep rooted, and justified, hatred and suspicion of white people. He joined the navy in 1941 hoping to improve his life, only to discover that, "The Navy was as racist as the state of Mississippi." 

Then in 1942, the ship he was on, the USS Truxton, smashed into rocks on the shore near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. The citizens of St. Lawrence headed out in the cold wintery weather risking their own lives to rescue as many men as they could. The kindness of these all white citizens, but especially, Violet Pike, precipitated a profound shift in Lanier's world view. He attributed that their unconditional acceptance of him initiated a rebirth in him. They helped him to appreciate the dignity of all people irrespective of their skin colour, and through this, to have hope for himself. "In St Lawrence, Lanier had seen a different way of life where everyone was equal. He knew such a life was possible. He had to pave the way for change so other African americans could have an easier time when they tried to better themselves."

In spite of continued obstacles, Lanier Phillips persisted and went on to be the first African American sonar technician in the Navy. After he retired from the Navy, he worked with Jacques Cousteau on the ALVIN deep-water submersible. He walked with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. 

I'm conflicted about this book.

There are some parts I really enjoyed reading - especially the narrative that tells the story of Lanier Phillips. It is actually a very gripping read. However, at times I was confused by the way the story jumps from this narrative to a more nonfiction based reporting of events and facts. I liked that Lanier's story is set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, but there are times when the same information is retold in a different sections. To be honest, this was irritating and confusing to me. I wish this book had been formatted differently so that the backdrop could have been more smoothly integrated into Lanier's life. 

I have some concern that Christine Welldon is a white woman telling this story, but then, I ask myself, doesn't this story belong to both those brave Newfoundlanders and Lanier Phillips? And I am reminded of a line from marilyn nelson's book, how i discovered poetry, "I ask myself who is not my people."

In spite of these minor quibbles, I'm glad I read this book. It opened my eyes to a piece of Canadian history I was unaware of. (Although at the time, Newfoundland was not part of Canada) 

We've got some students in our school working on history projects. I'm looking forward to introducing them to this story this week. 

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