May 12, 2016

A Change of Heart

by Alice Walsh
Illustrated by Erin Bennett Banks
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4-10
April 2016

A Change of Heart is a profound story of racism, resilience, and redemption and will be an important book to add to all booklists for social justice, Black History month and character education.

From A Change of Heart 
by Alice Walsh, illus. by Erin Bennett Banks
Based on the life of Lanier Phillips, A Change of Heart depicts the young African American’s early life in Georgia, enduring the terror of the Klan and the racism of its laws and his growing resentment of this injustice.  Joining the navy in 1941, hopeful of escaping that racism, Lanier was chagrined to learn the same attitudes and bigotry prevailed on board the USS Truxton.

But a new series of terrors arise when a storm hits off the coast of Newfoundland and the crew must escape the sinking Truxton.  While Calvin, a fellow African-American sailor chooses to stay on the ship rather than risk the potential horrors of prejudice on shore, Lanier took a chance.
The raft bounced and twirled, the wild sea tossing the men about.  Facing the fierce winds and driving sleet, Lanier knew there was a chance he wouldn’t make it to land.  But that wasn’t his biggest fear.  He recalled Calvin’s words.  Would the people ashore accept him?  In many ports, a Black man was not welcome.  That thought frightened Lanier as much as the treacherous waters that swirled beneath him. (pg. 19)
From A Change of Heart 
by Alice Walsh, illus. by Erin Bennett Banks
Rescued by a Newfoundlander named Abe and taken to his house in St. Lawrence to be tended to by women who’d never seen a Black man before, Lanier experiences the compassion and respect needed to help “all his fear, bitterness, and anger melt away.” (pg. 28)

The note “About Lanier Phillips” at the conclusion of A Change of Heart details the seaman’s achievements, including becoming the first African American to graduate from the US Navy’s sonar school and recipient of the prestigious Lone Sailor Award, and he gives credit to the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundlad for providing him with a “lesson in humanity.” (pg. 32)  Alice Walsh gets to the heart of Lanier Phillips’ story by recognizing the seeds of resentment that grew out of a threatening society of discrimination that were squashed with the compassion of good people who saw beyond the colour of Lanier Phillips’ skin and offered assistance regardless.  The story is a gripping one and well illustrated by the distinctive angularity of Erin Bennett Banks’ evocative art.  From childhood scenes of the Klan on horseback to the ship in the storm and Lanier Phillips’ rescue, the simple scenes share the physical nature of a hard reality against a backdrop of a potential buoyancy nestled in an atmosphere of goodness.  It’s this contrasting balance of harsh and calm that tells Lanier Phillips’ story so gracefully in A Change of Heart.

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