Picks and Pans Review: Four Spirits

updated 11/17/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Sena Jeter Naslund

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Four Spirits, a sweeping novel set in the South, is a fictionalized account of what it was like to live in Birmingham, Ala., in the segregated '60s. (The title refers to the four black girls who were murdered in 1963 when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists.) Naslund, who lived in Birmingham during the period, intermingles imaginary and real characters (such as Martin Luther King Jr.) to show how faith and courage eventually prevailed over horror.

There are lapses into syrupy dialogue (a black minister advises, "Don't be afraid of jail. They can't jail a soul. Your spirit—it remain free"), and the plot, centered around two black women who join forces with two white women to protest injustice as the region erupts in rioting, is sometimes meandering. But Naslund gets in the heads of dozens of characters from every corner of southern life, and her empathy runs so deep that she can make you understand even the hateful, bigoted soul of a Ku Klux Klan member.

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