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Susan’s Bookshelves: Lula Dean’s Little Library of Banned Books by Kirsten Miller

Many decades ago, when I was teaching in the English department of a small town Kent secondary school for girls, we were relentlessly harassed by a parent whom I’m going to call Mr Misguided. He had it in for our library which contained, he said, filthy, blasphemous books as did some of our English lessons. He was (and still is) a well known local “do-gooder” who thrived on publicity. So our literary endeavours to corrupt the youth of the town were soon all over the local press and other media. Mr M seemed to object to anything which featured boys and girls communicating with other or which mentioned religion however obliquely. Well that actually covered just about everything in our library and department stock cupboard. For several months it was both stressful and funny. He backed off once his daughter was selected for transfer to the local grammar school at age 13, which was – we concluded – his purpose all along. And we were too weary by then to point out that the grammar school would  have all the same books.

I thought a lot about Mr M while I was reading Lula Dean’s Library of Banned Books (2024)  We’re in Troy, a small town in Georgia where fanatical citizen Lula Dean has set up the Concerned Parents Committee and managed to get a lot of books banned in the local school. She has also set up a mini library at her gate containing bland books about crochet, baking and etiquette – except that someone has swapped dust covers and people are actually borrowing the banned titles. On Lula’s hit list are Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl and “Are you there God? It’s me Margaret” by Judy Blume, all of which have actually been banned somewhere in the US –  along with other titles some of which Kirsten Miller has invented.  Of course Lula’s agenda is extreme right, anti-gay, misogynistic, “pro-family”, fundamentalist,  and anti-woke.

At the same time there’s a statue in the centre of the town which some people want pulled down. Wainwright was a slave owner who “built” the town  – or rather his enslaved minions did. It gradually transpires through 21st century DNA testing, that he is ancestor to half the town. Like many in his position he took sex from several of the women he controlled. There are now demands to remove the statue but of course there are many shades of opinion and Lula roundly supports its retention.

Miller depicts a whole community in this novel so there are lots of intersecting characters and story lines. The novel is actually too long and more complicated than it need be but it makes its point pretty well and the ending is neat. Some of the characters are delightful: Mr Minter, the gay head of music at the high school, for example. So is the doctor from Queens, whose ancestors came from India. And the style is upbeat and witty.  I laughed aloud when Lula’s estranged children return and “out” her publicly by listing the books they remember on her night stand. We often wondered what titles Mr M had on his bedside table because, of course, the more fanatical people are the more likely it is that they’ve something to hide or suppress. We need novels like this one to highlight their hypocrisy.

Moreover anyone who wants books banned is immediately hoist with his or her own petar because they are stressing just how influential books can be. And that’s exactly what those of us who think everyone should be free, encouraged even, to read anything and everything have always argued.

Next week on Susan’s Book Shelves Sold! By Charlie Ross with Stewart Ross.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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