The Bottom Line: A wondrous blend of moving coming-of-age fiction and historical thriller that will leave readers breathless.
Set in 1963, They Became Silent (Book 1) is told from the point of view of 17-year-old black football star Joseph Freeman. Known as the “next Jim Brown,” the book documents Freeman’s struggle to adapt to life after his family moves to the fictional town of Cullingland, Georgia, the first racially integrated place in America. As the book opens, Freeman is justifiably concerned about his future interactions with whites (“the only interaction with whites I’ve had is fighting”). Meanwhile, his friend Fat Meat is obsessed with a white woman they know as Mrs. Green.
By some indications, Cullingland’s grand experiment might be working. Most of the shops in town are black owned and operated, and the town’s sheriff is black – a fact Joseph can’t wait to tell his grandfather. But there’s also a nightly curfew enforced by Sweepers, and more dauntingly, something called the “gifted curse.” Rumor is, each year, the area’s top athletes disappear.
Author LaShawn Evans is a masterful world-builder, as he spends much of the book’s first half creating a mythical place that coexists alongside what most many Americans perceive to be true about the civil right struggle in the 60s. Opening with a sobering quote from a century earlier by Abraham Lincoln, what follows are numerous character-development scenes in the form of anecdotes and observations that are simultaneously hilarious, affectionate and foreboding. These characters – Joseph, his brother James, Fat Meat, Will and Mrs. Green – are expertly fleshed out thanks to Evans’ patient, unhurried exploration. They collectively experience the 1960s that we know today compressed into a single year, complete with moving rhetoric from Dr. Martin Luther King as well as unthinkable violence. And on a personal level, things get real for LaShawn when a character suspects that a man in her life killed her mother.
While much of the book is world-building and character-development, the story’s fire comes as fiction and real-world tragedy collide. As a vulnerable Joseph asks “where do we go from here?” In the book’s closing pages, the answer for captivated readers is obvious: start Book Two ASAP.