Reviewed by Charles Kuner.
Shawn Shiflett’s novel, Hey, Liberal!, is a memorable and fast-paced novel that pulls the reader into the story from beginning to end. I was so engrossed with the story and its characters that I almost read the whole book in one sitting. In his novel, Mr. Shiflett, an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago, chose to deal with Chicago’s public schools in the 1960s, which then were in a continuous state of turmoil. I can easily identify with the characters and situations—it was like living in the 1960s for the second time in my life.
Hey, Liberal! is set in the summer of 1969 in Lincoln Park right after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent riots in Chicago that spilled over into the schools. The novel follows 13-year-old Simon Fleming, a white student whose father is a civil-rights-activist minister. His parents send him to a predominately black school, Dexter High School, which is a replication of the current Lincoln Park High School. Simon is forced to navigate between gangs, drugs, violence, a failed student boycott, and race riots.
Shiflett has indicated that the plot was inspired by events from his own youth, but emphasizes that while inspired by true events, the novel is not autobiographical or a memoir. He wanted to write a book with humor, characters, and a plot, and he has succeeded beyond all expectations. Shiflett did attend Lincoln Park High School, which at the time was largely black and Hispanic, but now is mostly white. So, Lincoln Park High (the fictional Dexter High) was certainly not a love fest after the assassination of Dr. King. As the author says, “. . . it was just a very angry time. You were on the run a lot.”
There are two overarching themes in Hey, Liberal! The first comes from the Koko Taylor quote right before the novel begins: “Be what you be.” The author did not create one-dimensional characters. Some grow or evolve into what they are meant to be. Mr. Shiflett has stated that about half the characters are composites of people he knew. During my years at Marshall High and Farragut Career Academy, I also recognized teachers and students that were like some of the characters in this novel.
Simon’s personal journey begins when he feels charged by his parents to help the community in its struggle for school integration. He may have come from a home that strongly believed in peace, love, and understanding, but Simon’s constant exposure to and experience with guns and fists during the riots has an addictive draw for him. Shiflett states, “If I have been able to make readers share Simon’s internal reactions, including his stages of grief later on (especially when a friend of his gets killed), don’t readers walk away with a better understanding of how violence negatively impacts themselves and the world around them?”
The second overarching theme can be summarized in the phrase, “All was fair in an unfair world,” justifying gang and racial riots. For instance, Clark, the racist and brutal white cop at the Dexter School, takes the law into his own hands and kills a pedophile because the man was not convicted for his deviant sexual crimes. And there is John Lange, a white biology teacher at Dexter, who stirs up his students with his political radical agenda rather than teach his subject, and who then stays safely behind in his classroom while his riled up students put themselves in harm’s way during the riots.
Shiflett has written an edgy, no-holds barred insider account of student life during the late-1960s racial turmoil, which is distressingly relevant to us today. It is also a very rich novel especially in his use of language and dialect, which is natural, authentic, and heightened by Shiflett’s technique. And it’s not stereotypical. This is a coming-of-age novel akin to Catcher in the Rye, for Shiflett presents important insights into the usual teen issues of acceptance and conformity.
Hey, Liberal! brings to light a very out-of-touch educational system accompanied by the universality of racial turmoil, as it was not only happening in Chicago but throughout the United States and the world in the 1960s. As a nation, we were moving at a snail’s pace toward what hopefully would be a more culturally diverse and inclusive future.