This review contains spoilers.
Set amidst the racial tensions of 1960s America, Celeste O. Norfleet’s One Night in Georgia is a beautifully woven commentary on race in America that is extremely relevant today. Coeds Zelda Livingston, Veronica Cook and Daphne Brooks embark on a road trip to Spelman College a week before the semester begins, but their trip will change their worlds forever.
Zelda, daughter of a prominent civil rights attorney, still grapples with her father’s death at the hands of white policemen a few years prior, and during the summer before her last year of college, tensions with her mother’s new boyfriend Darnell continue to escalate. When her two best friends, Daphne and Veronica, arrive in Veronica’s new car, they insist she accompanies them on a road trip back to Spelman College to fulfill their freshman year promises of one last fun adventure before graduating.
Hesitant due to the systemic harm done to black people in the South, from lynching to extreme police brutality, Zelda eventually agrees to go with them after a fight with her mother and Darnell, insisting they stop in Washington D.C. at her aunt and uncle’s house prior to heading South. The girls meet Zelda’s aunt and uncle Dorothy and Owen, who warn them of the dangers of traveling South alone, but then they meet Daniel, the son of a friend of Darnell, who has been sent by Darnell to escort the three girls to Atlanta, where he too goes to college.
Despite close encounters, the four make it to Georgia—and run into their fellow sorority sister Mazie. She insists they accompany her and stay with her the night to attend her birthday party. At said party, heartbroken over her fiancé cheating on her, they meet two young white men, Billy and Robert, who later show up at Mazie’s house. Amidst a fight that breaks out, Mazie draws a gun on Robert and after Zelda takes it from her, Zelda shoots Robert.
After coming up with a cover, knowing their precarious position, they agree to pin the blame on Billy, knowing that even if Zelda admits to self-defense she will not be believed. A while later, as the girls drive out of town, they’re pulled over and taken to the local police station for Billy’s murder, and then the nearby military base.
Culminating in Zelda finding out that Daniel has confessed to killing Robert, One Night in Georgia is a deeply heart-wrenching tale of self-discovery, history and collective national memory. Norfleet’s characters are wonderful—their motivations evident and their desire to change the world heart-warming. Finding one’s place in a larger history is one of the most important themes of this novel. How does one grapple with a history that harms them? The power of narrative and national memory drives this novel and makes it an exceedingly compelling read—with plenty of relevant themes in politics today.
A must-read for anyone interested in historical fiction, One Night in Georgia is part of our Summer Reading List for 2019.