Monday, January 10, 2011

Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged!

"Viola Desmond was one brave woman! Now come on here, listen in close and I'll tell you why." With this folksy voice, similar to the oral style of her African Canadian heritage, first-time author Jody Nyasha Warner welcomes readers to the little-known story of Viola Desmond's daring act of courage.

Desmond, a beauty salon owner living in Nova Scotia, developed car troubles on the road one wintery day in 1946. While her car was being repaired, she decided to pass the time watching a feature film in a movie theater in the town of New Glasgow. Trouble arose when she unknowingly took a seat on the main floor and not up in the balcony with the other black viewers. Asked to move, she refused, and in short order the police were summoned. She was arrested and spent the night in a jail cell. The following day she was found guilty and fined. Outraged at the injustice, Desmond refused to let the matter drop. She and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People fought her case all the way to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, where her appeal was turned down. The court was unwilling to acknowledge that racism was involved, insisting it was a simple case of tax evasion. Her struggles inspired others to continue to fight against segregation.

Desmond's story is simple yet powerful, and one that took place years before Rosa Parks made her stand against segregation. It certainly deserves to be told. I just wish this book did a better job. I found it frustratingly vague, especially since the experiences of blacks in Canada is something I know little about. For instance, the text states that Desmond "inspired all kinds of people to fight against segregation," but it doesn't tell how. And what finally happened to Desmond or even if she is alive is never told. (She died in 1965 after leaving Canada and moving to New York.) True, the afterword is informative and fills in some details, but not enough.

Richard Rudnick's acrylic illustrations, many of which were based on archival photographs, are striking, sometimes jarringly so. The expressions on certain faces--for instance, those of the policeman, manager, and usher--are contorted and at times frightening. His bold color palette I found overly vibrant and at times melodramatic. Overall the illustrations have the look and feel from cinema's film noir period.

Beginning readers should have no trouble tackling the straightforward text. The sentences are direct and the conversational, relaxed tone is engaging. As an introduction to a little-known but important black activist, this book deserves a space on library shelves.

Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged!
by Jody Nyasha Warner
illustrations by Richard Rudnicki
Groundwood/House of Anansi, 32 pages
Published: 2010

This week's Nonfiction Monday is at Tales from the Rushmore Kid.


  1. A great companion book for the review you just posted would be SIT-IN, How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea and Brian Pinkney. Just picked it up from the library yesterday - It is beautiful! Recommended by Cybils.

    ~ Lauri Chandler

  2. Thanks for reviewing this book. It’s an important story and it was my very great pleasure and honour to be able to illustrate it. Viola Desmond was a smart, talented, and successful, young entrepreneur who was also teaching other Black women in mid-1940s Nova Scotia how to be successful themselves. She was devastated by what happened to her, and likely never fully recovered. It’s disgusting that not once in her two trials was racism and discrimination ever mentioned. Just last year she was granted the Queen’s pardon, which means that the wrongful conviction has been withdrawn, and she is officially innocent. Some of Viola’s sisters are still alive, and one of them, Wanda Robson, has written a very good book, “Sister to Courage”, with insight into the times and the person who was Viola Desmond. Viola died alone at the age of 50 in New York City, just as she was starting up a new business.

    Richard Rudnicki – Nova Scotia, Canada