A Review of Hey, Liberal! by Shawn Shiflett (Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2016)
By Claire Martin, Interviews Editor
Hey, Liberal! may just be coming out when we need it most. Although writer Shawn Shiflett (Hidden Place) takes us back to the north side of Chicago in 1969, his brand new novel remains strikingly relevant to today’s issues.
Simon Fleming carries us through his ever-moving world during the late '60s. At just thirteen years old, he’s sent by his family of civil rights activists to attend Dexter High School, a chiefly African American institution, where he is one of few white students. His father, a prominent minister, answers the swelling call for change by insisting that his son be part of the fight for equality. With all the excitability of being a freshman, he takes on young romance, steers around watchful parents, makes a new set of friends, and even finds a spot on the baseball team. But in the midst of rising pressures throughout the city, Simon is involuntarily swept into the sparks of the riots. So when Officer Clark, a bigoted burnout of a cop working at Dexter, tries to buddy up with him, he realizes that passivity to his advantages will still make him enemies. Upon recognizing the separation from his friends, teammates, and peers, he must push forward to understand his intrinsic place in the community.
Shiflett uses Simon’s character to expertly convey the great complexity and incredible tension of the '60s. In one poignant passage toward the end, Simon finds himself in the midst of a riot with a young African American woman silently walking next to him in hopes that he would block shattering glass. All the while, Simon is musing to himself.
“A chunk of something whizzed past, nearly clipped his chin, and punched a jagged hole through the front door window of a flower shop. He flinched, recovered, and glanced inside the store just in time to see the gray-haired crown of someone’s head disappear beneath a counter display of bouquet arrangements. Too fucking close for—
He noticed that the girl, after jolting from the near miss, must have fallen behind. Not my problem. Would she have cared about . . . But he hesitated, questioned if doing so made him a sap, just long enough for her to catch up to him again, and they moved on, their forward progress calibrated by necessity, convenience, pride, and even a baffling unity. In an instant, the sum total of his experience clicked. He was older.”
It’s exactly this kind of reflection that propels the importance of Simon’s story. By throwing a curious and compassionate boy into the world of Dexter, two impossible to ignore racial realities of 1969 collide, and Simon becomes the unique platform to take us there. His imperfections highlight his growth, confirming that progress is not always linear, but often the result of taking responsibility. The title of Hey, Liberal! is a lesson that stands on its own. It suggests with certainty that Simon’s political battle cry is nothing more than a statement until he earnestly learns what it means to stand tall in a complicated time. We finally see him do this when he starts acting from an angle of genuine understanding, and Simon shows us a place of resonance that we are still grappling with as a nation today. Hey, Liberal! brings us into a world where we have space to explore our inherent roles in society and all of their essential and valuable nuances. Not only that, but it can be done through humor, poise, and unwavering honesty.
Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.
March 06, 2017