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Author brings the 1970s to life in 'One Mississippi'

The '70s weren't all about powder-blue tuxedos, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Sonny and Cher Show," but those are some of the things that stand out for author Mark Childress.

"One Mississippi," his latest novel, brings the 1970s back to life, with unforgettable prom attire, church musicals and Sonny and Cher. The book follows Daniel, a high school junior, who moves to Mississippi from Indiana.

The Gwinnett Daily Post Book Club will discuss the book during its next meeting on July 27.

Childress drew from his own life while writing "One Mississippi."

"A lot of me is in all of the characters in the book, not just the most obvious one - Daniel, who goes to high school in Mississippi at the same time I did," Childress said during a recent telephone interview.

Like Daniel, he moved from Indiana to Mississippi and didn't fit in at his new school. "I remember very much being the odd man out," Childress said.

In the book, both Daniel's parents are from the South, but the family has never lived there. School is especially hard, but Daniel becomes friends with Tim, a fellow misfit. The two of them are the main targets of the school's biggest bully.

"High school is so intense. I think we tend to block out memories of how painful it was," Childress said.

Though Childress wasn't one of the popular kids, he didn't hate high school. "I was not nearly as miserable as the kid in this book," he said.

In "One Mississippi," the friendship between Daniel and Tim helps them deal with the worst moments of school. They do almost everything together, from wearing powder blue tuxedos at the prom to watching "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" on television every Saturday night.

Both boys are musicians and are invited to come and play with a church youth group band. The group is producing an elaborate musical about the life of Jesus. The fictional show was inspired by 1970s musicals like "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," which were incredibly popular then, Childress said.

When Childress was growing up, youth group activities were a major part of his social life.

"If you wanted to get out of the house, youth group was the ticket," Childress said.

Though the book does reflect real-life influences, the characters in "One Mississippi" ended up taking on lives of their own, the author said. He was sometimes surprised by what happened in the story, which is set during the first year the schools in Mississippi were integrated.

At the school dance Daniel and Tim attend, a black student named Arnita is elected prom queen. After the prom ends, she is hit by a car. When she wakes up in the hospital, she insists that she's a white girl named Linda.

Childress wasn't expecting that twist.

"She announced it and I had no idea what she was going to say," Childress said. "I thought she was so interesting. It's a kind of color blindness that comes over her."

While Arnita is in the hospital, Daniel helps her family with chores like mowing the lawn. When Arnita comes home, he helps her catch up with schoolwork.

As Daniel becomes closer to Arnita, he doesn't know if she really believes what she says about being white. Even the author isn't sure this character was telling the truth.

"You never quite know if she's putting you on," Childress said.

IFYOUGO

Join the Gwinnett Daily Post Book Club as we discuss "One Mississippi" by Mark Childress (Little, Brown, $24.99). Set in 1970s, this novel follows Daniel and his best friend Tim through the difficult days of high school in Mississippi.

•What: Gwinnett Daily Post Book Club discusses "One Mississippi" by Mark Childress

•When: 7 p.m. June 27

•Where: The meeting room at the Collins Hill Library, located at 455 Camp Perrin Road in Lawrenceville.

•Cost: The meeting is free. The book is available for $24.99

•Info: Call Rachael Mason 770-963-9205, ext. 1324.

•Note: The author will not be present at the meeting, but he will visit Atlanta on July 10. Childress will discuss and sign his work at the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum Visitors Center, 990 Peachtree St. in Atlanta. A reception will be held at 6 p.m., and the discussion begins at 7 p.m. The event costs $10. Reservations are requested. Call 770-578-3502 or visit www.gwtw.org.