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  • Writer's pictureJo Kibble

The Power of Conviction in Susan Cushman's "John & Mary Margaret"

How do we stay true to our convictions, and how much do we allow society to dictate how strongly those convictions are held? These are questions explored in Susan Cushman’s John & Mary Margaret, a story of an interracial couple who meets at Ole Miss in the late 60’s.

John & Mary Margaret offers an inside look into both the white privilege that was prevalent during the late 1960s and on into the 70s, and the struggles that the Black community faced during those times for equality. The story follows two protagonists, John and Mary Margaret, from their high school years on into adulthood and old age.

Mary Margaret Sutherland is a young white girl living in Jackson, Mississippi. Hers is a quite sheltered life, but she longs to write. Friends such as author Eudora Welty educate her about the struggles that African Americans were facing at the time in the fight for civil rights, but the rest of Mary Margaret’s family and friends don’t seem to care as much as she does about these problems. Her family would rather she focus her mind on her studies and other things, like hanging out at the country club, learning to play bridge, and summer camp. Mary Margaret obliges in some ways, but always has the plight of the African American community in the back of her mind. As she prepares to leave home for college and pledge Tri Delta at Ole Miss, she resolves to try and help in some way.

Meanwhile, in Memphis, TN, John Abbott is trying to decide about his future. He’s a great football player, and he could easily get a full ride to TSU on a sports scholarship, but his heart is telling him something different. He wants to fight for his people and community and become a lawyer so that he can fight against the discrimination that they face on a regular basis. In order to do so, he would have to attend Ole Miss, a predominantly White college. His family balks and is concerned when he brings up the idea to them, but by then his mind is basically set. Despite the hardship he knows he’ll face at that college, he knows it’s where he needs to go to help his people.

John and Mary Margaret meet in an English class during their freshman year. While Mary Margaret is busy with sorority life, John is getting involved with the BSU, Black Student Organization, and the activism that they performed on campus. The two plan to study together for an exam, but where does their relationship go from there? Will Mary Margaret decide to stick with the status quo and the expectations of society, or will she stay strong in her convictions and fight for the equality she believes in?

The characters of John and Mary Margaret were first introduced to readers in Susan Cushman’s Friends of the Library. Using one of the characters from that book, Adele, as a reliable observer-narrator and connecting device between John and Mary Margaret’s stories, Cushman has crafted a heartfelt, brief, beautiful and authentic novel about the South, prejudice, courage, and the tension between one's convictions and societal pressure.

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