Category Archives: Index of Authors

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Why Didn't They Ask EvansWhy Didn't They Ask Evans
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: September 1, 1934
Genre: crime
Pages: 224
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

When Bobby Jones found a dying man at the foot of a Cliff beside a golf course, he stood in the shadow of his own Death.
But Bobby was lucky - lucky to escape being poisoned, and lucky to have the Quick-witted Frankie, otherwise Lady Frances Derwant, to help find the would-be murder,
Their only clues - a photograph and the dead man's last Words : Why didn't they ask Evans??

Back in 2019, when I was finishing up my Agatha Christie mystery project, I kept this one back so I could read it last. February 23, 2019 was the day that I finished it, and I remember being really happy that it was my final mystery. If I tried to describe this book in one word, that word would be charming.

This is a relatively early Christie – published in 1934 – as she moves into the period during which she will publish her best known and most beloved books. Murder on the Orient Express is the book that directly follows this one, and it is preceded by Lord Edgware Dies, which isn’t up to the standard of MotOE, but is still quite a good Christie. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was also published under the title The Boomerang Clue, and my paperback copy uses that title.

I was meant to read this book last November, as part of the Appointment with Agatha GR group, but, at the time, I just didn’t have the time to get to it. When I saw that the new Hugh Laurie adaptation was getting ready to drop for US viewers, I decided that I really needed to revisit it. I also convinced my daughter to read it, and we plan to watch the adaptation together soon. Maybe even as soon as tomorrow, but maybe not until next weekend, depending on where she is in the book.

This is just a post about the book, but a quick word about the trailer for the adaptation – it’s available on YouTube and it looks completely, again, charming. Will Poulter has been a favorite actor of mine since his turn as Eustace Scrubb in the not-particularly-good-nor-successful adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The movie was mediocre at best, but he was terrific. He was also really good in Dopesick as the pharmaceutical rep who finds his conscience. I also really like Lucy Boynton – I thought she was really good in both Bohemian Rhapsody and the Branah version of MotOE. If they have any chemistry at all, the casting looks to me to be about perfect.

Back to the book, though. I remember being surprised when I read it because I mentally had it placed in the 1950’s in Christie’s oevre, and this is definitely early 1930’s Christie. Frankie and Bobby are delightful – similar to Tommy and Tuppence in many ways, and also reminiscent of Bundle Brent and Anne Beddingfeld. The mystery itself is mundane – this is just a vehicle for the two protagonists to spend time together and to careen madly across a British countryside. It recaps some of the social issues that we see in this Christie era. Bobby has been released from the Navy and is at a loose end in a country with high unemployment and poor prospects from men of his class and experience. Frankie is the daughter of an earl, but isn’t all that interested in the young men of her class, and is much more invested in the idea of adventure. And Bobby. This book has one of her more delightful romantic subplots.

Basically, come for the mystery, stay for the charm.

Book 56: Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple

Because of the LockwoodsBecause of the Lockwoods
by Dorothy Whipple
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1949
Genre: fiction
Pages: 466
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

The story is deceptively simple: the entanglement of two families in a northern town called Aldworth. One, the Lockwoods, wealthy and powerful, in a position to patronise and help the second family, the poor Hunters, who have been left fatherless with a weak, ineffectual mother.

Though the thudding heart of the story draws the reader inexorably along, hoping for the meek to conquer the strong, it is a surprising book in many ways, not least for its subversive portrayal of family – the children are often the adults, the parents the untrustworthy, unwise ones, and Whipple makes it clear that what we call today the nuclear family is not the answer to happiness. But what may be most satisfying about the book is how the climax is reached as a result of character. This is twentieth-century British fiction at its very best.

This is my second book by Dorothy Whipple this year, and I’m trying to figure out where she has been all my life. Also, how does Whipple manage to make stories in which almost nothing happens, involving very mundane mid-twentieth century family concerns, so suspenseful?

The book begins with the Hunters and the Lockwoods as part of the same social circle and social class in the rather grim town of Aldworth, in the industrial north of England. I was reminded several times of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, in reading this book – I’ll follow up on this a bit later. The Hunters and the Lockwoods own large neighboring country homes on the outskirts of Aldworth, where they are the local gentry. Mr. Hunter is an architect, Mr. Lockwood does something in law/finance. In the first few pages, Mr. Hunter dies, leaving his wife and three children: Molly, Martin and Thea, basically destitute. Mr. & Mrs. Lockwood also have three children – daughters all – a set of twins named Bee and Muriel who are seemingly around Thea’s age, and Clare, who is younger.

And here the paths diverge.

There is a moment, very early in the book, where Mr. Lockwood engages in some very self-serving and unethical behavior, and basically converts a pretty large percentage of the very small estate left by Mr. Hunter to himself. This really sets the stage for the entire relationship between the Lockwoods and the Hunters, in which the Lockwoods pretend that they are doing the Hunters good turns by allowing them to associate with them, when what is really happening is that they are using and mistreating the Hunter family.

I became very, very frustrated with Mrs. Hunter during the course of this book. I struggle with weak, ineffectual characters, especially when those weak, ineffectual characters have children and need to buck up and get on with it. Mrs. Hunter was entirely incapable of bucking up and getting on with it, which meant that her children suffered quite a lot. She was perfectly willing to prostrate herself before the garish and rather vulgar Lockwoods, if it meant continuing to be recognized by them. In addition, she turned their finances over to Mr. Lockwood, who felt quite put upon, and this, as it turned out, was a really bad idea.

So, the Lockwoods essentially run their lives, but in ways which solely benefit the Lockwoods. When the oldest Hunter child, Molly, reaches the age of 15, Mrs. Lockwood farms her out to a family that needs a governess, in spite of the fact that Molly is shy, not particularly academic, and is a terrible governess. This goes on for years, making Molly miserable, as she is shunted from family to family, underpaid, by Mrs. Lockwood. Molly’s only real talent is baking – and she is quite accomplished. Mrs. Lockwood shows up for tea with Mrs. Hunter, and literally eats them out of house and home, completely blind to the fact that the Hunters are broke and she is eating their dinner.

Moving on to Martin, the middle Hunter child and the only son – Martin wants to be a doctor. When he reaches approximately 15, Mr. Lockwood bursts his dream and sends him out as a bank clerk. Now both Martin and Molly are miserable. It’s worth noting that, thus far in the book, none of the Hunters have an ounce of gumption, which they could sorely use. I was on the edge of my metaphorical seat, waiting and wanting desperately for someone to tell Mr. or Mrs. Lockwood, or their horrible twin daughters, to go fuck themselves. I mean, in very polite, 1949 language.

Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children, on the other hand is not so easily squashed. And this is really her story, although we don’t get to it until about 40%.

And then, Oliver Reade, a young upstart who is definitely not of the Hunter’s class, moves in next door. Like Mr. Lockwood, he is a managing sort with his fingers in many pies, which are becoming more lucrative every day. Unlike Mr. Lockwood, he is a very good and ethical person. He immediately falls for Thea, and Thea immediately dislikes him, which brings me back to the North and South reference from above. Oliver Reade, like John Thornton, is in trade. Thea, like Margaret Hale, is from the upper class, albeit one which has fallen on hard times. He is a great character and I fell for him immediately, mentally yelling at Thea to stop being such a brat and to pull her head out of her backside.

The idea that anyone could think that the Lockwoods were superior to Oliver Reade is preposterous and shows the rot endemic in any hereditary aristocracy or class system.

I’m going to stop here, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but suffice it to say, it is really satisfying. I can’t say that I absolutely loved the ending, which is why I knocked off that final half-star. It could have been perfect, but it wasn’t. I wanted just a bit more.

P.D. James: Cordelia Gray and Adam Dalgleish

An Unsuitable Job for a WomanAn Unsuitable Job for a Woman
by P.D. James
Rating: ★★★
Series: Cordelia Gray #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1972
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 256
ReRead?: Yes
Project: a century of women

Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to self-destruction. What she discovers instead is a twisting trail of secrets and sins, and the strong scent of murder. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman introduces P. D. James's courageous but vulnerable young detective, Cordelia Gray, in a top-rated puzzle of peril that holds you all the way

This is the first book in the Cordelia Gray duology. Cordelia Gray is P.D. James’s less well-known sleuth: a young private detective who more or less inherits a nearly bankrupt business when her mentor and former “partner” dies by suicide unexpectedly at the beginning of the book. She decides to carry on, and accepts her first case, which requires that she travel to Cambridge to try to determine why the young son of a prominent scientist has also committed suicide.

While I enjoyed this book, I don’t think that this book is nearly as good as her Adam Dalgleish series, which I am in the process of rereading. I’m sure I’ll pick up the sequel to this one, just for the sake of completion.

Death of an Expert WitnessDeath of an Expert Witness
by P.D. James
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Adam Dalgleish #6
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 368
ReRead?: Yes

Dr. Lorrimer appeared to be the picture of a bloodless, coldly efficient scientist. Only when his brutally slain body is discovered and his secret past dissected does the image begin to change. Once again, Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh learns that there is more to human beings than meets the eye -- and more to solving a murder than the obvious clues.

This installment in the Dalgleish series was really good. The victim, Dr. Lorrimer, is deeply, deeply unlikeable: bitter, mean, angry, and self-absorbed. While they aren’t any really great motives here, all of his acquaintances had some reason to dislike the victim. When he is bludgeoned to death in the lab, everyone is a suspect.

P.D. James develops the various characters – from the lab assistant that Lorrimer has tormented into a nervous breakdown, his colleagues, all of whom loathe him, his cousin, Angela, who is involved in a relationship with a woman and who was cut from her grandmother’s will in favor of Lorrimer, when she could very much have benefited from a legacy, to his lover, who has lost interest in him but he can’t let go.

Any of them had reason to have murdered him.

I didn’t solve the mystery, but I wasn’t surprised by the solution. The biggest surprise was that the victim lived as long as he did, given how horrible he was to the people around him.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper TreeThe Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1985
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 173
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Bella Winter has hit a low. Homeless and jobless, she is the mother of a toddler by a man whose name she didn’t quite catch, and her once pretty face is disfigured by the scar she acquired in a car accident. Friendless and without family, she’s recently disentangled herself from a selfish and indifferent boyfriend and a cruel and indifferent mother. But she shares a quality common to Barbara Comyns’s other heroines: a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. Before too long, Bella has found not only a job but a vocation; not only a place to live but a home and a makeshift family. As Comyns’s novel progresses, the story echoes and inverts the Brothers Grimm’s macabre tale The Juniper Tree. Will Bella’s hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of the happiness of others?

This is the second book by Barbara Comyns that I have read – the first was Our Spoons Were From Woolworths, which I read back in January, 2019. Like that one, this was a very unique book. Comyns is not a cozy writer, even if some of her writing is very beautiful. Her books are disturbing, and sometimes harrowing, with characters whose mental health is often tenuous at best.

The Juniper Tree is a retelling of one of the most terrible and terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales (also called The Juniper Tree), which involved monstrous step-mothers, child abuse, decapitation and cannibalism. It is noteworthy for the following poem:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

The book begins with the meeting of the main character, Bella Winter, who is at a low financial ebb, and a wealthy couple named Bernard and Gertrude. Bella is unmarried, and has a toddler-aged daughter named Tommy. She becomes enmeshed with Bernard and Gertrude, who are childless, and begins a job in an antique shop. Things seem to be headed in a positive direction.

As Bella grows closer to Bernard and Gertrude, their lives becomes more and more idealized to her. She takes the place of beloved daughter of the home, especially where Gertrude is concerned. When Gertrude becomes pregnant, though, things start to fall apart. The juniper tree, a part of a thicket that is an especially important section of Gertrude’s garden, takes on increasing significance.

If you are familiar with the fairy tale, the trajectory of the book will not surprise, but I don’t want to spoil it for readers who aren’t. Suffice to say that there are significant losses ahead, and, as well, Bella’s mental health becomes more fragile until it breaks completely. The end of this book is quite different from that in the fairy tale, and, thankfully, Comyn’s skips the cannibalism element.

I read the NYRB print edition, which I checked out of my local library. These books are very well made, and are a pleasure to read. The Juniper Tree definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it well-worth reading.

Black History Month: A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes

A Rage in HarlemA Rage in Harlem
by Chester Himes
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Harlem Cycle #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1957
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

A Rage in Harlem is a ripping introduction to Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, patrolling New York City’s roughest streets in Chester Himes’s groundbreaking Harlem Detectives series.

For love of fine, wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson surrenders his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds—and then he steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a craps table. Luckily for him, he can turn to his savvy twin brother, Goldy, who earns a living—disguised as a Sister of Mercy—by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. With Goldy on his side, Jackson is ready for payback.

This is the last of my Black History Month reads, and was also the Appointment with Agatha side read for February. Chester Himes was an African American novelist whose novels included the Harlem Detectives series, featuring two black police officers, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

This book has a definite noir flavor, and is also completely bonkers. It starts off with a bang, and continues to explode periodically throughout the entire experience. Non-stop action from start to finish, with a lot of twists and turns, and some extremely unexpected murders along the way. It’s an extremely violent book.

On my GR group, it has had a bit of a polarizing effect. There are several people who really liked it, but others who DNF’d early on because they couldn’t connect to the story or style. I’m in sort of middling position – I liked it, but it was really violent. Himes certainly did surprise me several times. I think it’s unlikely that I’ll continue with the series, even though I found it to be worth reading as an example of early crime fiction written by a Black author.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

The SentenceThe Sentence
by Louise Erdrich
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: November 9, 2021
Genre: fiction, supernatural
Pages: 387
ReRead?: No

In this stunning and timely novel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich creates a wickedly funny ghost story, a tale of passion, of a complex marriage, and of a woman's relentless errors.

Louise Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store's most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls' Day, but she simply won't leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading with murderous attention, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls' Day 2019 and ends on All Souls' Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional, and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.

It’s been a long time since I read a book by Louise Erdrich – I think that the last one was The Beet Queen, published in 1986, or maybe her co-written project with her ex-husband, Michael Dorris, The Crown of Columbus, published in 1991. I remember finding both of them fairly stunning, along with A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, written by Dorris and published in 1987. So, I guess it’s been somewhere around 30 years. If I put it into perspective, I think that Erdrich was a casualty of my abandonment of literary fiction for law school, motherhood, a profession, and genre.

I have been feeling an inclination back in the direction of literary fiction, which was something that I didn’t think was likely to ever happen again. Now that my career is winding down – and it definitely is winding down – I think I’m moving into a place where literary fiction is both more manageable and more interesting to me. I’ve spent years reading genre fiction and backlist/classic fiction, having largely dismissed contemporary literary fiction from my reading life.

In any case, Ms. Erdrich, it’s been a long time. Welcome back to my headspace. Now that you’re in there, I’d like to invite you to stick around for a while.

This book had so many elements that I really loved. The main character Tookie, and, especially, her stalwart husband, Pollux. The nods to indigenous practices and Native American literature and history, and the books. Tookie works in a bookstore, and it is fair to say that books saved her life when she received a clearly excessive prison sentence for some stupid criminality. Covid plays a role, along with the murder of George Floyd and the protests in Minneapolis that occurred in its wake.

Much of the action of the book occurs in a Minneapolis bookstore modeled on Birchbark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, which is now on my bucket list of bookstores to visit before I die, along with Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by Ann Patchett), the entire town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, and the Persephone Shop in London. Here are a few pictures I sourced from the internet.

Now the question is, which Erdrich should I pick up next? If you have an opinion, or if you’ve read one of her books that you really loved, drop it into the comments.

Black History Month: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell It On The MountainGo Tell It On The Mountain
by James Baldwin
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: May 18, 1953
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 240
ReRead?: No
Project: back to the classics, Mt. TBR 2022

“Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It on the Mountain, originally published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery one Saturday in March of 1935 of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle toward self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

I’m still catching up on my Baldwin reads. This was a powerful book – it’s Baldwin’s first major work, published in 1953.  Set all on one day, it covers four separate perspectives: the main character, John Grimes, his step-father, Gabriel, a minister, his father’s sister, Florence, a woman nearly overcome with bitterness, and his long-suffering mother, Elizabeth. It’s semi-autobiographical, and reading Notes of a Native Son after reading this helped me to better understand the character of step-father – who comes off quite badly – and the relationship between the protagonist and his step-father.

Set in Harlem in 1930, it provides deep insight into the depression-era African-American experience in the (supposedly) more welcoming northern states.

“There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South. There was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other”.

It also pays attention to, in particular, the deep reliance on Christian faith possessed by many (if not most) African-Americans, in spite of their oppression and marginalization. Written in poetic language that echoes the King James Bible, I would count Go Tell It On The Mountain as essential reading for anyone who is interested in understanding the history of racism in the United States.

2022: Book 32 – Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

by Susan Cooper
Rating: ★★★★
Series: The Dark is Rising #3
Publication Date: January 1, 1974
Genre: fantasy, YA
Pages: 153
ReRead?: Yes
Project: Mt. TBR 2022

Simon, Jane, and Barney, enlisted by their mysterious great-uncle, arrive in a small coastal town to recover a priceless golden grail stolen by the forces of evil -- Dark. They are not at first aware of the strange powers of another boy brought to help, Will Stanton -- nor of the sinister significance of the Greenwitch, an image of leaves and branches that for centuries has been cast into the sea for good luck in fishing and harvest. Their search for the grail sets into motion a series of distubing, sometimes dangerous events that, at their climax, bring forth a gift that, for a time at least, will keep the Dark from rising.

I’m at that point in the Dark is Rising sequence where I have now completed all of the rereads. The last two books, The Grey King and Silver on the Tree, are new to me.

I recall that when I previously read this book, I found it very underwhelming. This is curious to me, because I really liked it this time around. It’s still by no means my favorite – The Dark is Rising continues to enjoy that distinction – but I liked it better than Over Sea, Under Stone. The bringing together of the characters from the first two stories works well, with Merriman Lyon providing the bridge between the stories. In addition to the Light and the Dark, Cooper brings the Wild Magic into her story, and it is all the better for it.

I put this entire series on my TBR cart for 2022 because they’ve been hanging around forever, and I really wanted to read to the end. I’m ready to move into the part of the story that is new to me. It’s definitely a keeper series, though, so once it comes off the TBR cart, it definitely stays on the bookshelves. I never read it aloud to my children when they were young – and that opportunity is long since missed – but maybe my hoped for grandchildren provide an opportunity.

Black History Month: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could TalkIf Beale Street Could Talk
by James Baldwin
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1974
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 197
ReRead?: No

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions-affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

I am far behind on my book posts from February – I did a great job keeping up in January, but sort of fell off the wagon and now am in catch up mode.

This is the first of 4 additional books that I read for Black History Month, in addition to Jubilee, which I did manage to get written up before the end of the month – and I read two additional James Baldwin books: Go Tell it on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son. The final book was A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a later Baldwin, published in 1974.

I’ve now read four of Baldwin’s books – last year I read The Fire Next Time for Black history month. He is an incredibly talented writer, and is equally proficient in fiction and essay/non-fiction. I think that I have slightly preferred reading his essays, but getting to understand his voice has really helped me to lean into his fiction as well. I feel like reading Baldwin is a life-long undertaking. Each book that I add to my personal experience enhances the books that I have read before. It would take endless rereads to absorb everything that is packed into his writing – the symbolism, the characters, the personal history, the perspective, the bone-deep understanding of what racism has wrought in America.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a good example of this, because, like Go Tell it on the Mountain, it exists on multiple levels. On the first level, it’s a very simple love story. Fonny and Tish are in love, and they are having a baby, and there are barriers to overcome. But digging below the surface, there is so much more. There is racism at this deeply institutional level, and injustice and hope, and there is also homophobia, and colorism, and misogyny. It was an easier read than Go Tell it on the Mountain, for sure, and I can understand why it is considered a “lesser” Baldwin – it is told in a more straightforward, linear fashion, and it lacks the symbolic, King-James-Bible inspired language and imagery that he used when he was a younger writer.

I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not sure that I will, at least not right away. There is so much more that I have to learn from Baldwin.

Black History Month: Jubilee by Margaret Walker

by Margaret Walker
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1966
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 497
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. Vyry bears witness to the South’s antebellum opulence and to its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker’s novel brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light. Jubilee churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history.

I stumbled on Jubilee when I was looking for a book for my birthday year of 1966 to finish up that decade for my Century of Women project. It fit well with my reading for Black History Month as well, and my public library had a copy available, so I grabbed it.

I’m really surprised that this book isn’t better known because it was an amazing read. Margaret Walker, the author, was a black woman born in Alabama in 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Jubilee draws heavily on the oral history of Walker’s family, and is basically an unromanticized, unsanitized (and frankly much better) answer to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The character at the center of the book is Elvira, or Vyra. The reader meets Vyry at the very beginning, as a small child who is brought to see her mother, a slave, one last time before she dies, worn out from child bearing and physical labor. Vyry is the daughter of a slave and her white master, who rapes her on the regular (the book doesn’t frame the relationship as “rape” and the master would surely not have imagined himself a rapist. But a person who is property has no ability to decline consent, and therefore the entire concept of consent is meaningless when it comes to sexual contact between the man who owns the woman and the woman. All sexual contact is coercive and is also, therefore, abusive and assaultive). She is the despised half-sister of the legitimate daughter of house, who looks enough like her to pass as white and to constantly remind the mistress that her husband was forcing himself on a slave during their marriage.

The book begins in around 1850, fifteen years before the Civil War, through the Reconstruction. Vyry is a fantastic character – fully realized and complex. She rebuts many of the myths about slaves – that they were happy, that they weren’t mistreated, that they didn’t yearn for freedom, that they neither saw nor internalized the unjustness of their circumstances. She is absolutely indomitable, as are many of the black characters in this book.

Before the Civil War, she falls in love with a wealthy, well-educated and free Black man. They want to marry, but are denied the opportunity because the plantation owners recognize that the very existence of free Blacks will create unrest among their slaves. When she approaches her master – who is also her father – about her wish to marry, he is indulgent until he finds out that she has been keeping company with a free man, at which point he becomes abusive. The man she loves wants to purchase her freedom, and this request is denied. It is cruel.

I suppose that this is one of those books that the new breed of book banners would likely seek to ban. It shows the south for what it was – a brutal, white supremacists regime under which a good chunk of humanity lived in terror (and was denied their humanity). The Civil War destroys the south, leaving the plantations in ruin and economically broken. The North abandons the emancipated slaves, leaving them to fend for themselves in circumstances that are impossible and horrific.

No, they have begun a reign of terror to put the Negro back in slavery. They will never accept the fact that the South rose up in rebellion against the Union North and the North won the war. They mean to take out all their grudges on us.”

Vyry and her children struggle on, scraping by in poverty, fleeing from one racist town to the next, supported by a good and decent man that Vyry marries when she believes her first love has died in the Civil War. Vyry dies free, but there is no real happy ending for her, unless you consider the life of Margaret Walker to be her happy ending – a brilliant, successful young granddaughter who stood on the weary shoulders of a great-grandmother who never really had a moment’s rest.

Walker, born in 1915, was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. She was a poet and a novelist, and her poem, For My People, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1942. It reminds me of Amanda Gorman’s poem read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, The Hills We Climb. It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;
1942 was 12 years before Brown v. Board of Education and 22 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can read the whole poem here.

This book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. It can be difficult to be reminded how brutally the United States treated some of its citizens, but it is better to remember than to pretend. Our shared humanity demands that we be strong enough to face the truth about our history and ourselves.