We hadden liefde, we hadden wapens
A moving novel about the fight against injustice
Christine Otten’s new novel has a historical subject but is thoroughly topical. The commitment of today’s Black Lives Matter movement connects seamlessly with the battle by Rob and Mabel Williams, who in the 1950s fought for civil rights and equal treatment for black Americans.
The Williams family lived with their sons Bobby and John in Monroe, Northern California, a region with strict racial segregation and a prominent Ku Klux Klan presence. The father was an outspoken, proud black man who, as local chairman of the NAACP, one of the oldest civil rights movements in the US, claimed that the use of weapons was permissible in cases in which black people were threatened with violence. This was a break with the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King.
During race riots in 1961 the Williams family sheltered in their home a white couple who had accidentally found themselves in between the opposing sides. This noble deed was interpreted by the police as a kidnapping and a warrant was issued for Rob Williams’ arrest. The family fled in the middle of the night, first to Canada and later to Cuba under Fidel Castro, with whom Williams maintained strong ties. When that relationship cooled, the family accepted an invitation from Beijing to attend celebrations of the anniversary of the Chinese revolution and they settled first in China and later in Vietnam. Only after Richard Nixon restored relations with Mao Zedong were they able to return home.
In Otten’s novel we hear the voices of John and his mother Mabel. Otten has made use of the conversations she had with John and both characters come to life as a result. Mabel tells how as a sixteen- year-old girl she fell for the charms of the older, mysterious Rob. Her parents warn her against him. His outspoken pride is dangerous. Mabel loves jazz and literature. She seems to be missing something, but she follows her husband wherever his road leads.
Through John’s eyes we see the influence on the lives of the two boys of repeatedly having to move house at a moment’s notice. The combination of distance, respect and love that John feels in relation to his father is beautifully depicted in the book. With subtle psycho- logical portraits of her characters and her topical theme, Otten has written an important, moving novel.