With the same broad scope of her first novel, Ahab's Wife, Naslund brings into focus the turbulent city of Birmingham in the 1960s (when it was known as Bombingham) and the Civil Rights movement. She weaves various fictional characters into the actual events of the day, most notably the church bombing that killed four little girls, the four spirits of the title.
College student Stella Silver knows about tragedy. Angered by the citizens of Birmingham celebrating Kennedy's assassination, Stella and her best friend, wheelchair-bound Catherine, take on the dangerous job of teaching night school to black children.
She encounters embittered black teachers, liberal optimistic whites and a group of Peace Corps volunteers. They are pulled into the maelstrom of brutality as Naslund juxtaposes some very disturbing acts with the everyday lives of both races, trying to survive in a city on the verge of eruption.
Faithful to history, Naslund recreates a tempestuous era with compassion and insight. There are no stereotypical characters in this brilliant, moving, powerful novel, nor are there simple answers to years of prejudice and misunderstanding. Like Anne Fairbairn's Five Smooth Stones and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, this novel paints a vibrant portrait of a time and a place, but mostly of its people, which leaves an indelible mark on your soul. (Sep., 544 pp., $26.95)