Cover image for Safe from the neighbors
Safe from the neighbors
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Physical Description:
259 p. ; 25 cm.
Geographic Term:
A high school history teacher, Luke May, looks into his own past and begins to discover secrets from his childhood in Mississippi during the 1960s, secrets that he didn't know existed and connect him to the violence of the Civil Rights movement.


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A Mississippi high-school teacher can't separate his hometown's uneasy past from his own in this thoughtful novel from Yarbrough (The End of California, 2006, etc). Loring native Luke May takes a just-the-facts approach to history, teaching his students the difficulty of pinpointing cause and effect. As the school year starts, Luke is at loose ends. His daughters have gone to college, his aging parents are in failing health, he and his wife Jennifer, an aspiring poet who teaches freshman English at a nearby college, have drifted into minimal verbal and sexual communication. Then he meets the flashy new French teacher, Maggie Sorrentino, ne Calloway. Maggie left Loring as a little girl in 1962, after her father Arlan shot and killed her mother Nadine in what was ruled self defense. Luke's father considered Arlan his best friend, although the more affluent Arlan was threatening his livelihood. The night of the killing, which was also the eve of James Meredith's historic enrollment at Ole Miss, the two men had driven to Oxford as members of the local White Citizens Council. As Luke falls into an affair with Maggie, he begins digging to uncover the truth of what happened that night 44 years ago. From a snippet of conversation Maggie remembers overhearing as a child, Ned suspects that his father, a less-than-successful farmer and admitted racist but also a war hero and devoted husband to his now-senile wife, might have had some kind of relationship with Maggie's mother not unlike Luke's relationship with Maggie. More sleuthing brings up a romantic connection between Nadine and Luke's otherwise saintly mentor, local newspaper editor Ellis Buchanan, who courageously stood up for integration when no one else did. Learning the truth has its price, and Luke pays dearly. Loring is Yarbrough's Yoknapatawpha County, and he uses what in other hands could be a banal plot to bring to vital life the complicated interplay of cause and coincidence in history and individual lives. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Luke May teaches local history--his lifelong obsession--at his old high school in Loring, Mississippi. Having been mentored by his hometown newspaper's publisher, a survivor of the civil rights turmoil, he now passes these stories along to students far too young to have experienced or, in some cases, even heard about them. But when a long-lost friend suddenly returns to Loring, where years ago her family had been shattered by an act of spectacular violence, Luke begins to realize that his connection with her runs deeper, both personally and politically, than he ever imagined. Just children in 1962, they had no sense of what was happening when James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss provoked a bloody new battle in the old Civil War, much less its impact on their fathers' ambiguous friendship. Once his daughters leave for Ole Miss, and with his marriage at an impasse, Luke's investigation of this decades-old trauma soon spills over into his own life. With his parents unwilling, or unable, to help him unlock secrets whose existence he'd never suspected, this amateur historian is soon entirely consumed by an obscure past he can neither explain nor control--a gripping reminder that the past isn't dead, or even past. Once again Steve Yarbrough powerfully evokes--as David Guterson put it--"not only historical grief but the grief of our own time."

Author Notes

Steve Yarbrough is the author of three story collections & a novel, "The Oxygen Man", which received the Mississippi Author's Award, the California Book Award, & a third from the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters. He lives in Fresno, California.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Yarbrough's tightly constructed latest is hobbled by the ordinariness of its characters and the situations they find themselves in. The story is told from the point of view of Luke May, a high school teacher and history buff living in a small Mississippi River delta town where he and his wife carry on a passionless marriage. During Luke's childhood, a family friend killed his wife, and Luke never fully understood the circumstances. After Maggie, one of the slain mother's children, returns to town as the new high school French teacher, Luke begins to unravel the murder, which coincided with one of the key moments in the civil rights movement. He also begins an affair with Maggie, providing a bit of tension as the reader wonders where the affair will lead and what Luke will learn about the shooting. The book's pacing and language are superb, and while Yarbrough (The End of California) is terrific at getting inside the head of his protagonist, what's inside isn't very special. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Our lives are inextricable from history. In his new novel, Yarbrough intertwines James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss with a town's not-so-admirable response. Decades later, local historian and high-school teacher Luke May struggles with his father's involvement in Meredith's enrollment. May also initiates his family's crumbling. Being a historian, or perhaps simply by being human, May is incapable of forgetting, which he recognizes as both blessing and curse. Yarbrough wonderfully displays the social upheaval of a specific era and the often-overlooked complexities of small-town life. He also intelligently wrestles with whether or not actions require condemnation of the whole man or just his actions. The relationships are real: simultaneously complex and simple. They are built out of pain and joy. Luke May dislikes some elements of the past but realizes condemnation of his father is futile. Luke's family may have fallen apart, but he will get along. Reading the novel hurts, but in a way that you know things will be okay.--Parsons, Blair Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

Residents in Loring, Miss., call him Mr. History, but Luke May, a 50-year-old high school teacher, laments: "I was just a guy who'd never write a book or lead a boycott or take a stand against community mores or assault a beach or walk the streets of a bombed-out city. . . . I read it and I talked about it, without ever once having done anything unusual enough to make it. Not even locally." But Mr. History is more involved with local history than he realizes. When his twin daughters enroll at Ole Miss, leaving Luke and his wife to confront an empty nest, Luke fills the void by having an affair with Maggie Calloway Sorrentino, a childhood friend who has just returned to Loring after 40-plus years. She left in the fall of 1962, soon after two pivotal events: the integration of Ole Miss by James Meredith, and the shotgun death of Maggie's mother by the hand of her father - a mystery in Loring lore, not least because her father was never indicted for his action. When Luke and Maggie were children, their fathers were close. But Maggie's return has Luke remembering contentious scenes between them, which in turn prompts some amateur sleuthing. What role might his father have played in Maggie's mother's death? And what kind of man was his father during the civil rights era? Convenient diary entries from an unexpected quarter feel like a cheat, and intrude on the narrative cohesion. But Yarbrough, who has been likened to Faulkner for his attention to Mississippi (and whose novel "Prisoners of War" was a finalist for the 2005 PEN/ Faulkner Award) nimbly illustrates what the past can tell us about the present.

Library Journal Review

Luke May is a high school history teacher in Loring, MS, with a deteriorating marriage. When his childhood friend Maggie returns to town, Luke is drawn into an affair with her. At the same time, he attempts to reconstruct the history of an event from Maggie's past that happened to coincide with the battle over the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. Though the large cast of characters and constant jumping back and forth in time require close attention, Yarbrough (The End of California) successfully ties together the various threads of the story. Verdict In a straightforward and nonjudgmental way, Yarbrough looks at the aftermath of the South's racist history and its impact on the generations after the Civil Rights Movement. Here, there are no heroes or villains, only flawed humans who responded differently to changing times. Broad appeal.-Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



"Just look what happens to poets," I used to tell my honors class on the first day of school. "Half the time they go mad. And you know why I think that happens? Too much truth distilled to its essence, all surrounding evidence ignored or discarded. And I'm not faulting them for that. They're just doing what poets are supposed to, and they've left us some beautiful works of literature, some of which have lasted for hundreds of years. "When you pursue truth the way a historian does, though, you'll find that it seldom travels without escort. There are all kinds of accompanying data. And causation, in particular, is usually a complicated matter. Let me give you an example of what I mean. "In 1944, the day after the Allies landed in Normandy, a woman who lived down in Belzoni gave birth prematurely to quintuplets, and all of them died within the hour. The Jackson and Memphis papers had already reported the invasion, and this poor woman had reason to believe her husband was there. Like women all over Mississippi--all over America--she was terrified, scared to death her guy might've died on a beach thousands of miles from home. Now what effect do you think her fears could've had on her pregnancy?" A hand or two always went up. "Maybe it got her so scared it threw her into labor." "It certainly could have. Things like that do happen. And so since there would've been no reason for her husband to storm those beaches if the Nazis hadn't been entrenched there, you might consider accusing Adolf Hitler of having helped cause the deaths of those babies, along with all those other deaths he helped cause, millions upon millions of deaths in hundreds of battles or in concentration camps spread across Europe. "But you might look for other 'causes' as well. For instance, when I was a student up at Ole Miss, where I learned about these dead babies while working on an oral history project, I discovered this lady's father had lost his job in 1931 and stayed unemployed until 1942. The whole time she was growing up, she didn't have enough to eat, so by the time she got married she'd been malnourished for years, just like a lot of other Americans at that time, including my mother and father and quite a few of your grandparents. We're talking about the Great Depression, and who usually gets blamed for responding inadequately to that?" Another hand in the air. "Herbert Hoover?" "That's right. We won't worry about whether that's fair or not. We'll just add his name next to Hitler's." I usually started to move around the room at this point, walking over to the window to look out at the athletic fields where the Loring High football and baseball teams held their practices. With my back to the students, I'd say, "Of course, it turns out this woman had smoked all the way through her pregnancy and, according to some, drank hard liquor, too. It was illegal in Mississippi back then, but you could get booze from bootleggers, and more than a few people thought she did, though they weren't sure how, given that she was poor and broke. These days, knowing a lot more about the effects of smoking and drinking on fetuses in utero, we might want to add her own name to the list of folks 'responsible' for this. We might put her mom's name up there, too, because when she found out her daughter was pregnant, she told this troubled young woman to get out of the house, that she and her husband couldn't feed any more mouths." I'd always turn around and face them before making the next statement. "Depending on whether or not you subscribe to a religious worldview--and I know most of you do--you might even want to add God's name to the list Excerpted from Safe from the Neighbors by Steve Yarbrough All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.