Book Review: The Fog Machine

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50 years ago and in this month, June 1964, the Freedom Summer Project took place in Mississippi. This event was a way to force the media and the country to take note of the horrific acts of violence and great injustice taking place there. The Freedom Summer Project culminates in Susan Follett’s The Fog Machine, making this an extremely timely read and is also based on Follett’s own experiences during this tumultuous time in American history.  

The Fog Machine is told from the (three and very different) perspectives of three people learning what freedom means to them and the price that each will pay for achieving it.  Joan Barnes is the twelve year old white girl, C.J. Evans is the young black woman who’s home is in Mississippi but travels to Chicago to continue her servitude of cleaning white people’s home and Zach Bernstein is the Jewish University of Chicago law student. All three are or become closely tied to one another, making for a wonderful story reminiscent of characters and events like those found in The Help (by Kathryn Stockett) and The Dry Grass of August (by Anna Jean Mayhew).  

The story opens with Joan celebrating with an ice cream sundae after making her First Communion. In these few moments spent at the pharmacy’s counter, she’s witness to a whole wallop of behaviours rank with intolerance and contempt. First with her mother’s off-hand comment made about their maid not being able to attend her church services that Sunday morning since she had to prepare for Joan’s celebration (and that it’s okay, because well, one, she’s the maid, secondly, she’s just a Baptist), to the two kids that come in and start uttering ignorant and cruel comments about Catholics and N******s. (Follett uses and spells out this word liberally throughout her novel, which does fit with the content, I just won’t here though.) Then, in her first week of school she has two of her friends come over and is quite conflicted from their expectation to mistreat and order around their maid, C.J. This pains Joan considerably – she feels in her heart this is not right, this is actually not the way they as a family treat C.J. – but in order to keep her valued friendships she feels she must submit to these taunts and demands. Shortly after this, and knowing how much pain this has caused C.J., C.J. moves away, leaving Joan thinking it was solely due to her actions.

Joan reminded me somewhat of Jubie’s character in The Dry Grass of August, as she repeatedly questions her surroundings, wonders if the water from the drinking fountains for “Coloreds Only” tastes any different, or why the waiting room hidden in the back of her Daddy’s doctor’s office doesn’t have the same nice magazines and books like the one at the front of the office.  After C.J. leaves, Joan’s storyline falls behind for the better part of the book and we hear only how she has become more influenced by and adopts the behaviour of her closest friend Carol and her great-grandfather, “Big Daddy”.

 “Do you remember Big Daddy talking about the coloreds being dim-witted and shiftless.” or “Meridian’s got an understanding with its coloreds – keeping the pool open and them out. That Civil Rights Act won’t change things here.” (Big Daddy’s views.)

Only when her father invites Joan to join him at the Freedom School does she revisit her earlier memories and experiences and returns to a thinking she knows is just and right. She is able to reconnect with C.J. in the summer of 1964, make amends and enjoy a close friendship and bond with her.

C.J. has only followed firmly in a life filled with her mother’s warnings:  “know your place; stay safe“.  She lives only in this understanding and that her time will come when she must leave school (that she so loves) to clean white folks’ homes. This has always been their way, their place and her only goal is to save enough money so that her brother Charlie can attend college and better his life. She does nothing to disturb this way as there have been far too many times where even the slightest disruption has caused great pain and suffering. Although Meridian is not ideal for C.J., or are her employers ones that make her feel safe, she persists this is her home and where she belongs – with her family and caring for her family. Her best friend Mae encourages her to go to Chicago where it is more relaxed and she can make more money being a maid. After a few harrowing experiences with her employers, C.J. gives in, completes the application and moves to Chicago.

In Chicago, C.J. has great difficulty adjusting to the more lax ways and her employer’s openness and friendliness at having C.J. be considered a welcomed employee into their home. C.J. is far outside her comfort zone here and her mantra of: ” “know your place; stay safe“.  For instance, first when Mrs. Gray invites C.J. to sit with the family and mourn the death of President Kennedy and again when she invites C.J. and her friend’s to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with the family, C.J. doesn’t know how to react.

 “Tell, expect, need. I’ve heard me all of those before. But invite?” (pg. 222).

“How devastating for the Kennedys, losing their husband and father. How heartbreaking for Mrs. Gray, losing her President. But C.J. realized she’d caught Mrs. Gray’s feeling some time ago. President Kennedy had become her President, too.” (pg. 220).

She lives in an apartment with a group of other black girls that have come from all over, and in the same building lives Zach Bernstein. Zach is a law student at the University of Chicago and is devoted to his faith and commitment to tzedakah – justice and righteousness. His presence causes considerable discomfort for most of the girls, especially C.J. as simply talking casually or in a friendly manner to white folk back in Meridian can lead to devastating trouble. However, C.J. is unable to put Zach far from her mind and is very drawn and attracted to him.

Zach’s initial reason for wanting to connect with C.J. and her roommates is to understand more of what it is like to live in the South and the injustice experienced there.  He too however cannot deny his feelings for C.J and this is why he decides to put law school on hold so that he can teach at the Meridian Freedom School. He wants to fight “for a world where we can be – whatever we want to be to each other” (pg. 243).

C.J. has a very difficult time accepting Zach’s affections and his determination to teach in Mississippi, even though she admires his commitment to his beliefs. She tries to express to him how  painful it would be for his family if anything happened to him? C.J. clearly knows the devastation that is caused, knows how people have been killed for less. She also finds it extremely difficult to tell him she does love him. While there is change happening, she still knows that she cannot give herself to him freely.

Zach wished for change so that he and C.J. could be what they wanted to be to each other. However, I did like how Follett closed this story for Zach and C.J. For me, it remained true to what I think C.J.’s point of view and the one she held on to throughout this story. It does not close in a “happily ever after” scenario where Zach and C.J. marry and live in love and happiness together. Because, while change was happening, it remained unrealistic and against C.J.’s judgement to be the person to act on what she saw as only tiny changes in the thinking and behaviour of those at home and perhaps in Chicago too.

Related in some way to this: PBS has a Facebook page established called PBS Black Culture Connection. One feature on that page was a post about how on June 12, 1967, the US Supreme Court put an end to laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia. Mildred and Richard Loving’s story is here.

The Fog Machine is, as stated in the Author’s Notes, an historically authentic novel. It is historically authentic in the way that the events that are portrayed are as actually or could have happened in that time and place and in that way. It does make for excellent reading and I enjoyed the melding of the differing perspectives and their experiences or attitudes to them. It is well researched and documented including the historical timeline of events leading up to and including the establishment of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement, and in the back of the book, documents the songs and major events mentioned in the story, the popular cultural items (such as the Barbie doll) and the Freedom songs that were used for the Freedom Summer part.

We are quite thankful that The Fog Machine was sent to be considered by the Literary Hoarders by Kelley and Hall Book Publicity. This novel does deserve a wider and well publicized reach and is why I will provide the link here to the publisher’s site. It seems to be a difficult title to track down, and perhaps it is due to not having a wide publication yet. This should be remedied as it definitely deserves greater recognition and publicity.  It reads very, very well and comes highly recommended as I’m certain you will find it to be a wonderful and endearing read as much as I felt it was.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev