Tag Archives: African American history

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).

the-house-girl.jpg

            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

The Author

The Author

6 Comments

Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction

Book Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (St. Martin’s Press; 336 pages; $24.99).

calling-me-home.jpg

            William Shakespeare wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth, and nowhere is that truer than in Julie Kibler’s sobering, yet heartening debut Calling Me Home.  Kibler drew inspiration for her tale after learning her grandmother had fallen in love with an African American when she was a young woman.  At the time, though, any romantic connection between the two was unfeasible.  A story idea was thus born.

Employing a dual narrative format, Kibler sets Calling Me Home in both present-day Texas and in pre-World War II Kentucky, introducing us to two extraordinary women: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister, an elderly white lady and thirty-something Dorrie Curtis, a single black mother of two.

Isabelle has a huge favor to ask of Dorrie, something so big she cannot ask anyone else.  She has to go to a funeral in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she has to leave tomorrow.  Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her there.

Why does Isabelle ask Dorrie?  What kind of connection can an elderly white woman and a young black female have?  It’s simple, really.  Dorrie is Isabelle’s hairdresser.

If you are a woman, then you immediately understand the intimate relationship between a woman and her beautician.  There is a connection between the two women that belies age and race.  Isabelle and Dorrie have bonded over hair and have become friends.  But there are things both women have chosen not to tell the other.

Dorrie agrees to drive Isabelle to the funeral, although Isabelle refuses to say who died or how she is connected to the deceased.  For Dorrie, it’s a bit of a mystery.  But she does not pry.  She knows instinctively that Isabelle will reveal everything when she is good and ready.

When the two women set off, Kibler begins her second story arc.  Isabelle confides to Dorrie that she fell in love with Robert Prewitt when she was a teenager (Isabelle is only loosely based on Kibler’s own grandmother).  Robert wanted to be a doctor; he was the son of her family’s housekeeper and was African American.

Because this is 1939 Kentucky, the reader knows this is a doomed romance.  Especially in a “sundown” town like Shalerville where blacks were not allowed after dark.  Such places really existed.  It was quite alright for African-American maids, chauffeurs, and workers to be in Shalerville during the day, but, come sundown, they had to vacate the area or face the consequences.

Kibler’s decision to set part of the story in this sundown town has a sobering effect on the reader, or at least it did on me.  I worried for Robert and for Isabelle, but especially for Robert’s safety in such a dark, chilling and painful place.

As Isabelle narrates her part of the story, Kibler illustrates the sheer ugliness of the world in which Isabelle lives.  It’s full of small minds and discrimination so common at the time.  Robert and Isabelle know how difficult life will be for them but they are in love and determined.  They run away together, but the course of true love never does go smoothly, does it?  And Robert and Isabelle are no exception.

As Isabelle conveys her story to Dorrie, the young black mother begins confiding to Isabelle.  Dorrie likes Teague, a handsome, successful black man, but he just seems too perfect—something she is not.  After her divorce, Dorrie is hesitant about bringing a new man into her life and into the lives of her children: a sweet young daughter and a son who is a senior in high school.  Her son and his future constantly worry Dorrie, who is uncertain if she needs the added concern of a new relationship.  Listening to Isabelle’s story, though, Dorrie learns something profound about life and about love.

A bond that first formed over hair expands further.  For Isabelle and Dorrie, age and color matter not; they are insignificant things.

Calling Me Home is a courageous tale because Kibler holds nothing back.  Just a few weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term in office, you hear so often how we live in a “post-racial” society.  But is that actually true?  When Dorrie and Isabelle stop to eat at a restaurant on their trip, a white man and woman look curiously at them.  The man soon turns rude and openly stares at them.  In a stage whisper, he wonders why a white lady is with a black woman.

If the romance between Isabelle and Robert highlights race in the American past, then this scene is an eye-opening look at race in the American present.  Kibler shows us how far we’ve come in this country; however, she also shows us how far we still have to go.

Calling Me Home is both a solemn and stirringly emotional novel that takes us deep into a woman’s heart and backward into one country’s harsh past.  Kibler’s story of love, loss, family, faith, and friendship hearken to the stuff of life.  In the end, Calling Me Home is a surprising novel.  Because Kibler is always patient and easy on the foreshadowing, the conclusion is an ending that will surely amaze readers, just as it did me.

We should never dwell on our differences and focus instead on the ways we are the same.  That’s what I learned from Calling Me Home.  Kibler will break your heart in this tale, but she will also put it back together again.

julie kibler

Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home is the She Reads February Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book and enter to win one of ten copies and read the fabulous reviews of members.  The book comes out February 12.  Check back here on my blog February 12 for my interview with Kibler.  It’s going to be amazing!

 

11 Comments

Filed under book review, books, fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, women's lit

Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).

12-5hattie_full_600

            Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

Hattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

 

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

 

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

 

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

 

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

 

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.  

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

 

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

 

Mathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

 

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

2 Comments

Filed under book review, books, fiction, history, literary fiction, Oprah's Book Club 2.0

Spotlight on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

13320466.jpg

Some of you may not believe this, but I used to read nothing but romance novels. Then, Oprah’s Book Club came along in 1996, and my reading tastes changed. Suddenly, the world of literary fiction was open to me. Oh, the things I had been missing!  I devoured SHE’S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb; I read WHERE THE HEART IS by Billie Letts in one sitting.  The way  Barbara Kingsolver could tell a story fascinated me.  I soon learned that romance novelists had nothing on Bernhard Schlink–his THE READER was seductive and gripping.

I soon sought out other titles for myself and said goodbye to romance novels forever.  In 2010, Oprah ended her book club.  The news disappointed her fans, especially me. Earlier this year though, she launched the revamped Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, selecting as her first book WILD by Cheryl Strayed.

Oprah just announced her newest book club selection: THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE by Ayana Mathis.

s-TWELVE-TRIBES-OF-HATTIE-300x200

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

“A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented.  Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave.  She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis’s first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.”–from Goodreads

Here’s what Oprah said about the book:

“The opening pages of Ayana’s debut took my breath away,” said Winfrey, OWN CEO, “I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”

Yes, Oprah compared Mathis to literary goddess Morrison. High praise, indeed!


t 201212-obc-twelve-tribes-1-300x205

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE sounds like a great book. Mathis is sure to be a bright literary talent.

I’m reading THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. Who wants to read along with me?

4 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, literary fiction, Oprah's Book Club 2.0

Bound to the Land

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages; $27).

 

            With The Right-Hand Shore, Christopher Tilghman gives us a quietly beautiful novel about a family, a place, and the ties that both bind and constrain them.

The title refers to Mason’s Retreat, an estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  The Masons have been part of the land since the days after the Gunpowder Plot when their ancestor, the Emigrant, was exiled there.  Like people, the land can be complicated.

During the Civil War, Maryland was a border state.  Allegedly neither Confederate nor Union, some people’s loyalties were still divided.  Maryland’s location had a strategic importance for both North and South, and each side hoped to sway citizens to their cause.  As Tilghman writes, “In the North, there was one principle, one war, one story; in the South, one cause, one defense, one history; but in the borders, in the middle ground, there was as many principles and wars and histories as there were human beings to hold them, to survive them, to preserve them.”

Even before the outbreak of war in 1861, some men in Maryland knew that slavery was a dying institution.  Ogle S. Mason, the “Duke,” is such a man.  In 1857, Mason sells most of his field hands but keeps the house slaves.  He manumits them but fails to disclose them that information.  This is the kind of man he is.  On the day the slaves are sold, his daughter, Ophelia, watches, heartsick and helpless.

Tilghman does not shy away from subjects like these.  Mason is interested in the bottom line, and he knows that by selling his slaves, he can make a profit.  He reads the air and sniffs that war is coming.  Mason does not care that he rips families asunder.  But his daughter does; she lives with this regret for the rest of her life.

Perhaps because of the scene Ophelia witnesses in 1857, she feels no ties to Mason’s Retreat.  She wants as far from the Eastern Shore as she can get.  Upon her father’s death, she does not inherit the property; rather, because of some archaic custom, only men may inherit the land.  Her husband, Wyatt Bayly, owns the estate.

Even though he was not born there, Bayly loves the land and grows peaches.  While Ophelia flees for Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Paris with their daughter Mary, Bayly stays.  The land entrances him; it later kills him.  Their son, Thomas, stays with his father and feels abandoned by his mother.

Mary, interestingly, feels a kinship to her ancestral home, although she is miles away from it.  Mary is bound to the land.  Thomas, in contrast, feels jealousy when his father prefers his African-American best friend, Randall, over his own son.  Forbidden love forces Thomas to flee his home.  He later renounces all ties to it.

Ties to family and ties to land may be the prevailing themes of this novel, but Tilghman introduces other elements as well.  Mary is also constrained by her gender, her class, and her religion (she’s Catholic).  Randall’s sister, Beal, is confined by the same things that hamper Mary, but race and beauty also limit Beal.

By 1920, Mary is unmarried, childless, and dying of cancer.  She must find a male heir for Mason’s Retreat.  Edward Mason arrives with big dreams and dollar signs in his eyes.  He hears the history of the place and of the family.  Mesmerized, Edward finds the place pulling at him in ways he never expected.

Likewise, Mason’s Retreat entrances the reader.  More than that, though, the family draws you in.  Readers are vested in this family and in this place.  Reading this novel compels you to read to the end, despite the rampant racism of some of the characters.  That racism is to be expected since the novel takes place from the 1850s to 1920.

Tilghman’s research is impeccable.  Not only does he tackle the darkest days of American history, but he also intersperses European history throughout.  Science and botany are also found within these pages.  The Right-Hand Shore will appeal to a wide-ranging audience: history buffs, budding botanists and farmers, and all those who love an epic story.

The writing here is elegant.  Tilghman takes readers back and forth through time seamlessly.  However, the past he describes is always more interesting than the present.  In some instances, this reader finds it difficult to discern who is narrating the passages.  At one point, I even wonder if Tilghman tells the story from the place itself.  That is not the case.

I think, though, that such a point of view would have made a good novel an even better one.  The setting drives this story and actually becomes Tilghman’s strongest character.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, books, fiction