Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson examines disparities and connections in Civil Rights-era Mississippi

I downloaded a copy of Deborah Johnson’s The Air Between Us after seeing it advertised on Bookperk last week (it’s also on BookBub today). It was first published in 2008, and its themes resound as clearly as ever.

Despite the escalating civil rights movement, little has changed over the years in Revere, Mississippi. However, it's 1966, and school integration is on the horizon. Many citizens are staking out their positions, sometimes surprisingly. Dr. Cooper Connelly, a handsome blond doctor with an appropriately elegant socialite wife, comes out in favor of it, which irritates his father, a bigoted state senator.

Racial issues in town get stirred up further when “Critter” Tate, a ten-year-old African-American boy, drives his daddy’s truck up to the whites-only entrance of Doctors Hospital in order to save Billy Ray Puckett, who unintentionally shot himself falling out of a deer stand. Billy Ray was an accident-prone drunk, a poor white man from out in the country, so the incident doesn’t astonish anyone – not right away. Then circumstances persuade the sheriff’s office to investigate his case more deeply.

From this bare-bones plot summary, you’d be tempted to categorize The Air Between Us as a mystery, and it is, in the end – but you’d also be forgiven for getting caught up in the character portrayals and setting genre expectations aside. The focus moves from one fascinating resident of Revere to another with comfortable ease, reminiscent of sitting out on the veranda on a summer evening and hearing a fluent storyteller.

Among the prominent personalities in this tale are the wealthy Dr. Spencer Reese Jackson, who takes pride in being Revere’s only Black doctor; his wife, Deanie, whose self-possessed demeanor masks personal pain; and Miss Melba Obrenski, a light-skinned “Creole card reader” from New Orleans who doesn’t tell anyone, including her next-door neighbor and best friend Deanie, what race she is. Cooper finds that Miss Melba’s a good listener, and with the experience gained in her earlier career, she knows how to handle men – but Cooper seems different. There’s also a hospital administrator, Ned Hampton, “the very embodiment of the whole Mississippi contradiction,” who doesn’t see anything odd about supporting segregation while singing regularly with a Black church choir.

Turns out everyone in Revere has something they choose to keep quiet about, and the story takes its time revealing exactly what that is and why. That’s not to say it’s dull in the least. The multifaceted characters and their concealed back stories lend the story a deep richness. The mysteries wrap up satisfyingly (if a bit too neatly in places), with an underlying message in this absorbing saga: that nobody’s exempt from the responsibility of addressing racial inequities.

The Air Between Us was published in 2008 by Amistad/HarperCollins; in the US, it's currently selling for $1.99 as an ebook.


  1. Thank you for highlighting this book, so appropriate to the times, even though originally published in 2008.

  2. It is - thanks for commenting!