'Between the Lines'

Novel examines lessons to be learned from Detroit riots

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Claudia Whitsitt — a retired educator who’s now an author – promised her students that her next book would be for them.

And she’s kept that promise with her latest novel, “Between the Lines,” which is about the 1967 Detroit Riots.

“I promised my students I would write them a book once I retired from teaching. I love historical fiction and felt the riots supplied a great historical story from which young people could learn important lessons. Many students are just learning about the civil rights movement when they reach fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. Writing a historical story makes it more real for them and connects them to this part of history in a way textbooks cannot,” explained Whitsitt, a Detroit native.

Prior to retiring in 2012, Whitsitt was a teacher for 37 years. She earned her undergraduate degree in special education with a focus on visually impaired in 1975 and her graduate degree in guidance and counseling in 1980 – both from Eastern Michigan University. She lives in Saline with Don, her husband of 29 years. Together, they have five children and three grandchildren.

“When I was 10, I saw ‘The Miracle Worker’ with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke,” she recalled. “I instantly knew I wanted to be a teacher. It was a calling, a vocation, and my path never wavered.”

“Between the Lines” chronicles the friendships of three girls from different walks of life in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Riots. Hattie Percha meets Beverly Jo Nichols at a public school. Beverly Jo is 10-year-old Hattie’s first black friend. Completing this triad is a fearless tomboy named Crackers.

Despite opposition from Hattie’s mother and a racist teacher, the three unlikely friends join forces. As the self-proclaimed “Dream Girls,” they challenge bigotry and intolerance, willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto what’s most precious to them all — their friendship.

“There are so many important themes and lessons in this book that still apply today. The theme is friendship, but friendship that goes beyond the exterior and focuses on what’s inside our hearts. There are lessons about prejudice and racism, acceptance, tolerance, and empathy for others. I loved writing this book and even more I am thrilled that students are raving about it,” said Whitsitt.

The oldest of six children and the only girl, Whitsitt had just turned 15 when the riots began. So her personal experiences served as a foundation for “Between the Lines.”

“Detroit was thriving in the 1960s,” she recalled. “Considered an example of a Boom Town, the Motor City was a happening place. The Motown sound was born in Detroit and put us on the map. We also had a diverse population. Blacks and whites worked side-by-side in factories. Martin Luther King Jr. first gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963. I was proud of my city, and I knew I came from a great place.”

Whitsitt continued: “The riots started on my 15th birthday. I remember being outside with my dad and hearing gunshots. To my recollection, it was the first time I’d heard such a sound, and this sense of foreboding entered my world. I was a kid and angry I couldn’t continue with my birthday plans, but more than that, I was scared. Scared for my life, the life of my family, and the life of my precious city.”

This is not the first time Whitsitt’s extrapolated her personal experiences into her books. She did it before with “The Wrong Guy,” which was released in 2012 and re-released last year. This mystery novel takes place in 1969 on the heels of the Michigan Murders,  where seven young women — their ages ranging between 13 and 23 — were brutally murdered between 1967 and 1969 in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area by John Norman Collins, alias the Ypsilanti Ripper and the Co-ed Killer. The majority of the victims were EMU students.

His killing spree created plenty of unrest in Washtenaw County. All the victims were kidnapped, raped, beaten, and finally murdered. Some of their bodies were mutilated after death and later dumped. Collins was arrested on August 1, 1969 and was convicted a year later. He is currently serving a life sentence at the Marquette Branch Prison.

“I did a fair amount of research on the legal process, law enforcement agencies, reporting of the press, as well as interviews with some people who knew people involved in the case,” explained Whitsitt.

She attended EMU in the fall of 1970, not long after Collins was convicted.

“As a college freshman on the heels of Collins’ arrest, I can tell you that the atmosphere remained one of fear, suspicion, and apprehension. Even though Collins was behind bars, there was no way to be certain he was the killer. Co-eds wore whistles around their necks, carried Mace on their keyrings, and laced their keys between their fingers when walking on campus.
We were cautioned not to walk alone or go out after dark without a trusted companion. Certainly, this was not a typical college atmosphere and created a mistrust in many of the women on campus,” recalled Whitsitt.

In “The Wrong Guy,” Katie Hayes attends EMU not long after Collins has been arrested. She settles into the next phase of her life as a college student, reconciling her strict Catholic upbringing with the temptations that come with being away from home for the first time on a college campus. Six months into the academic year, Katie is involved in her first serious relationship but an emergency calls her home.

Upon returning, one co-ed is abducted and another murdered. This leaves Katie to wonder: Did the police arrest the wrong man? Armed with only her rosary and her Nancy Drew books, Katie must use her wits to trap the real murderer.

“The events of the Michigan Murders and the surrounding atmosphere of fear changed my perception of the world during an already tumultuous time in our country – the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Riots, the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings (in Ohio),” recalled Whitsitt. “There was a general social upheaval. No one felt safe any longer.”

Whitsitt was inspired to become a novelist after her husband’s passport was stolen when they were traveling overseas in the 1990s. Pretty soon, they started receiving strange phone calls in the middle of the night.

“A real life mystery presented itself through a complicated string of events concerning the theft of my husband's passport and the thief’s wife who suspected I was also married to her husband,” she explained. “While I was never able to solve the mystery in its entirety, I was able to create the Samantha series as a result.”

This series, which is about Samantha Stitsill – a school teacher turned amateur sleuth – has four books: “Identity Issues” (which was inspired by the aforementioned passport theft),
“Intimacy Issues,” “Internal Issues,” and “Inherited Issues.” There are no plans for a fifth one, but Whitsitt stated she’s open to that possibility.

“I’ve left the series open for another book, but I want to be sure to have a compelling storyline before I consider adding more to Sam’s books,” she said.

Currently, Whitsitt is working on “Beyond the Lines” — a sequel to “Between the Lines” — and “Two of Me,” a stand-alone suspense novel.

“I love the adrenaline high of creativity and the sense of crafting a story,” said Whitsitt. “Connecting with readers, especially students, makes me feel like I’m making a difference. I hope to instill strong values in my student readers and inspire them to do great things.

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