I almost quit reading this novel after the first few pages, but stuck it through in the interest of giving it a fair chance. It did not get any better. The characters were one-dimensional and cliched, the plot was predictable, and there was no literary depth whatsoever. The moral lesson was overly simple with no intriguing subtleties at all. It's been done before, and done far better.
It's not that the author is a bad writer entirely. She has a talent for putting together good sentences. She does a better job with dialect than many writers do. Unfortunately, to my ear, the dialect was overdone to the point that I was hearing "The Beverly Hillbillies" whenever a character spoke after just so long. It became caricatured. Sometimes, it seemed that a phrase was used just for the sake of the phrase itself, even if it didn't quite fit. For example, "There ain't no call to be hangin' up my bloomers." Huh? The mother was hanging up laundry, like always, except that the daughter was embarrassed to have her underwear seen by the boy she had a crush on. I can see her begging her mother not to put them up just then, but to say, "there ain't no call" to do it just shows a lack of understanding of the precise meaning of the phrase.
In another instance, the mother writes in a note, "Daddy's hankerin' for some ice cream." Okay, even though we're going to leave off every "g" at the end of every word every character speaks in the interest of making it sound precisely like they're saying it, those people are not going to be writing their words without the g on the end--not unless they're extremely uneducated, which does not seem to be the case with these characters. I think the handling of the dialect could have been toned down--a lot--and would have been as effective at providing verisimilitude, without drawing so much attention to itself that it overshadowed the story itself.
On the other hand, maybe the distraction of the heavy-handed dialect keeps the reader from noticing that the story was not particularly original, and the characters had little depth. The focus was mainly on the brave, plucky, rebellious, 13-year-old tomboy-just-on-the-verge-of-becoming-a-woman. How many times have we seen that same character in books (mainly for young girls) and in made-for-TV movies? There was nothing to set this particular young girl apart from all the others in all the other stories. And every other character was even less fleshed out than she was. I would have loved to have had a deeper glimpse into Gemma in particular. She seemed more a prop for the story than a real human being. Jessie's parents were cookie-cutter parents. Absolutely the only character that showed any complexity was the "surprise" bad guy, but he wasn't fleshed out well enough to be believable. On the other hand, the author's handling of the mixed feelings of the people who knew him was one of the things that she did handle quite well.
The book is not without merit, which is why I gave it 2 stars. Certainly, there is a nice, uplifting moral there for those who like simple, nicely packaged messages of that sort. I think it will appeal to readers who also like romance novels, Hallmark movies, and "inspirational" chain-letter emails, as well as to girls younger than 12 or 13. In addition, although I feared that the author might go overboard with religion, she actually handled that with a surprisingly smooth and light touch. But quite frankly, anyone reading this most likely already believes that racism is bad and the Ku Klux Klan is/was evil and I'm pretty sure we all know that this sort of thing was not uncommon in the Depression-era South. So I don't think this will actually teach anyone anything; rather, it is a way for people to identify with the "good guys" and feel superior to those less enlightened.