In the mid-1930s, Marian Anderson was a famed vocalist who had been applauded by European royalty and welcomed at the White House. But, because of her race, she was denied the right to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. This is the story of her resulting involvement in the civil rights movement of the time.
Aside from the timing, this story of Marion Anderson's life was deftly written, and the the subject is genuinely inspiring.
Ms. Anderson's determination and delight in singing opened many doors for her - her local community raised money so she could go to school, instead of working to help support her family. Undeterred by singing schools and vocal coaches that refused to accept black students, she became hugely successful, touring Europe and enchanting audiences across the US. But at each turn, racism provided an ugly backdrop, with segregated concert halls, train station waiting rooms, and the notorious incident of the Daughters of the Revolution refusing to allow her to perform in Washington's most appropriate concert hall.
While the book does use the famous concert on the Lincoln steps as a climax, what was fascinating was the picture of a quiet, gentle person drawn into the struggle for equal rights because she had no choice, not because she intended to change the world. I felt that she was driven to sing, not to be an activist, and that adds a poignancy to the courage she showed by her presence, and her simple dignity under terrible conditions.
I wasn't in the mood to read this, but I found it engrossing, and a timely reminder the freedom and equality I experience must never be taken for granted.
Oh, and there is a nice use of photographs and archival documents throughout the book.
I'd give this to someone interested in Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, or interested in civil rights, music, history, or biographies in general.
As Freedman does so well, The Voice that Challenged a Nation is an exquisite blend of text and photograph. I love the fact that Freedman leaves out any attempt to put a caption on the photo spread discussed above; the picture alone is sufficient. On page 55 is a copy of the Saturday, March 4, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier (Philadelphia Edition) headline that reads, “MRS. ROOSEVELT QUITS D.A.R.” with the story of Mrs. Roosevelt’s criticism of D.A.R. for excluding Marion Anderson from their concert hall, a perfect example of using historical materials to place the reader properly in the mood of the times.
Marion Anderson’s primary interest was singing. She practiced from the time she was a young girl until she stopped performing late in life. She studied in Europe. She performed in concert halls throughout the world. She never sought a political spotlight, never tried to become anything other than the best singer she could be. Freedman shows us that her talent forced her into the spotlight; forced her to represent black artists around the world; drove her into positions of authority, such as her appointment as a United Nations delegate; and earned her honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom (which put her in the spotlight even more).
Marion Anderson becomes a person we wish we lived near, a person we wished we grew up knowing, a person whose music we want to start collecting; she becomes someone we admire. Freedman allows Anderson’s own words to tell the story, primary documents to focus our attention, and quotes from her friends and families to shape our feelings, while Freedman steps graciously out of her way. This is what elevates Freedman’s books over other biographies. It is too bad this book does not come with music and a stereo system, although there are times reading this book and looking at the pictures, you will swear it does.
Genre: This book gives the story of Marian Anderson's life from the view of another person. Great research has been done to make her story accurate. It portrays her amazing singing talent and how her race as an African American affects what she was able to do. It also shows how she helped fight for equal rights.
Plot: The plot line follows the life of Marian Anderson. It initially starts out with her singing at the Lincoln Memorial, one of the greatest moments of her career and her life. Then it follows her life in chronological order. There is no specific climax, but an ongoing conflict of African Americans struggling for equal rights. It uses her life to demonstrate just one aspect in the fight for equality.
This book is broken into chapters with titles which help readers find the information in which they are most interested.
Towards the end there is an awkward piece where the text talks about her death but in the following chapter backs up a bit and talks more about events that happened during Marian's life. This break in the chronology is perhpas the only flaw in a wonderfully written tribute to an amazing woman.
Award: Newbery Medal
The Voice that Challenged a Nation is a captivating biography. Freedman does justice to the story of an amazing and relatively-unknown subject. Readers will be inspired by Anderson’s perseverance and humility as she transforms from the daughter of a coal and ice salesman into a renowned and ground-breaking singer.
Anderson always had a special talent for singing, and yet she struggled to find the funds for tutoring/schooling. Her church supported her throughout her early days, and Anderson began her early career with many small jobs, hired out to sing at concerts. She traveled extensively, visiting overseas quite often and even studying in England and Germany for a time.
Once Anderson returned to America, her ascent to stardom accelerated, but not without its issues. Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and Anderson was subject to segregation and separation as were all the other African-Americans at the time. Her thoughts on these issues were poignant; this line especially struck me: “’Somebody doesn’t always come right up to you and say, “You can’t have this, you can’t have that,” she told an interviewer. ‘It’s just as though there’s a hair that blows across your face. Nobody sees it, but it’s there and you can feel it’” (80).
Throughout the biography a consistent theme of persistent threads its way through the story; Anderson received numerous honorary degrees, including a doctorate from Harvard, despite her early troubles with schooling. She persisted in the face of discrimination and persisted when she was stymied in her personal life.
Freedman writes in a very plain, unadorned style; the biography is not enthralling, but one can clearly see that Freedman has respect for Anderson.
The book continues to chronologically detail Anderson’s life as she struggled to fulfill her dream as a singer. Once the countries of Europe heard her and the US gave her a chance, she would pave the way for unprecedented opportunities. She even sung in Nazi Germany in German and received a thunderous applause. The book discusses other important events in her life, such as performing for the White House. Unfortunately, as one would guess, Anderson does run into rampant racism, especially in the US segregated south.
Freeman does an excellent job with this biography. It immediately captures your attention and shows the significance of this woman, even to those unfamiliar with her. The book is wonderfully illustrated, as well.
The only critique I would have is this book could be a little deceptive to someone who does not know Marian Anderson. I think many students may pick it up and assume it is a Civil Rights warrior who toured the country giving passionate speeches and igniting political debate. But this book focuses heavily on her life as a singer.
Overall, this book would be great for middle school students who are going to learn about the more modern Civil Rights struggle. It is important for them to understand what those prior to the 60s went through as well. Also, many young girls can relate to Anderson because the desire to be a singer is as popular now as ever.
I could see using this text as an example of biography for a genre study in an English I or II classroom; it could also be used in correlation to a study on Civil Rights literature in an American Literature course.
While the setting of this story precedes the civil rights era of the 1960s, it provides many historical facets of race relations, particularly those in our nation's capitol. This book would be right at home in any middle to secondary social studies class. Also, art students may find inspiration in Marian's struggle to eventually become a globally-renowned figure in opera.
Marian Anderson in an inspirational character and Freeman’s description of her is of a refreshingly humble person for an individual of such tremendous talent. While an interesting story with a fair share of dramatic moments, the young reader may not find some of the more mundane details of her life as interesting. Though the intended audience may not be as fascinated by it as I was, her story is a lesson on race relations for students of American history. She faced many challenges to achieve her goals as a result of racial discrimination, from securing the education and training she needed to succeed, to the venues in which she performed and the places to which she travelled. Marian Anderson’s story highlights the dark side of a troubled time in our nation’s history, while demonstrating that individuals overcome and change does happen.
Marian's life's passion, singing and performing, as well as her success, is captured in this moment as she stands in front of the piano before 75,000 fans on the Mall. And while the biography primarily contains information about Marian's life, personal struggles and deep desire to become best singer possible, a secondary focus is the civil rights movement. The cover of the book presents an inextricable relationship between place, time and circumstance, and the life of a talented individual. Her carreer was shaped in part, by the obstacals she had to circumnavigate or, with the help of others, fight against and overcome.
Freedman also put in some extras for readers. My favorite section was the partial discography. This will give readers a jumping off point if they want to find some of Anderson's music. On the flip side, I found the selected bibliography too short and the index was too crammed.