Author Beth Macy, former reporter for The Roanoke Times, used to hear rumors about local African American brothers who’d been kidnapped by the circus. Impenetrably shielded by their family, the brothers’ fate remained private until their grand-niece Nancy Saunders agreed to allow Macy to share their history. The result is Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.
Brothers George and Willie Muse were born in the 1890s in Truevine, VA, a rural and impoverished community of former slaves and their descendants — where Jim Crow reigned and “justice” might have meant lynching. Both brothers were born with albinism, which gave them golden hair, milky skin and light-sensitive pale blue eyes, which were a curse for children expected to toil in tobacco fields under the broiling sun. One day, the little Muse boys disappeared...the same day a White man in a carriage was seen riding through Truevine.
Before television or radio, America had the circus. Traveling circuses large and small entertained folks with their performers, animals and, though appalling by current sensibilities, sideshow acts. Featured along with giants, fat ladies and pinheads were the headliners billed as the Ambassadors from Mars, or sometimes as the sheep-headed cannibals Eko and Iko, aka George and Willie Muse, who eventually traveled the United States and abroad as part of the “greatest show on earth.”
Macy gives the reader two stories in Truevine. One is of the Muse brothers and their mother Harriet, an amazing woman — a Black domestic worker who repeatedly used the deeply racist legal system to challenge the influential entertainment industry to recover her children and end the exploitive working conditions under which they were held. The other, tightly entwined with the Muse narrative, is the historical detail on the circus and its freak shows, a microcosm which reflected broader societal norms. Well researched, fascinating and profoundly moving, Truevine is a story which needed to be told.
It isn’t unusual for readers to have special books, favorites kept close to our hearts which entertain, inspire and, sometimes, offer an escape. In Ann Hood’s newest novel, The Book That Matters Most, a mother and daughter both seek refuge in the world of the written word.
Ava Tucker’s life is falling apart. Her loving husband just left her for a ridiculous woman known as the yarn bomber, her father has dementia and her wild child daughter Maggie is incommunicado while supposedly in Italy on a college semester abroad program. A coveted spot in the neighborhood library’s book club opens up and even that goes sour; Ava tries to impress the group by blurting out that the author of her book choice has agreed to visit the club, when in reality she has no idea if the woman is even alive. Mother and daughter are both struggling; as Ava deals with the unraveling of life as she knows it, Maggie’s ditched her school program and instead is descending into heroin addiction while being “kept” by an older married man in Paris, who is both alienating her from her family and facilitating her drug abuse.
The book club’s theme is, actually, the book that matters most. Most members choose hoary classics like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, but Ava’s choice, From Clare to Here, is an obscure title gifted to her as a child after a tragedy ripped her family apart and is a title she reread incessantly for comfort. As Hood alternates telling the stories of Ava and Maggie, she gradually reveals the secret of the real “book that matters most” and its pivotal role in the Tucker family. To explore more books about books, try Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop or The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.
What would you do to help your suffering child? For most parents, the answer is probably “damn near anything.” Carolyn Parkhurst’s new novel, Harmony, follows a family’s tumble down a rabbit hole in search of an elusive fix for their autistic child.
The Hammond parents have reached the end of their collective rope. Their tween daughter Tilly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and socially inept behaviors which were confounding when she was little are frightening with adolescence looming. After being asked to leave yet again another school, Tilly’s parents seek help from an unorthodox source: a man whose charisma and promises lead the family down the primrose path to Camp Harmony. An internet shaman for the neurodevelopmentally challenged, Scott Bean promises salvation, if not outright cures, to desperate parents willing to fork over their assets and live the communal lifestyle at Bean’s utopian retreat in the backwoods of New Hampshire. Is Bean a savior, just another exploitative quack, or something else entirely?
Harmony offers the reader three points of view: younger sister Iris, who loves Tilly but is struggling to find her place in a family focused on its weakest link; mother Alexandra, whose relentless examination of Tilly’s issues propels the family to the camp; and, occasionally, Tilly’s own poignant and imaginative voice which reminds us that behind labels lie unique human beings who actually aren’t so different after all. As Parkhurst writes, we are “exceptional and ordinary, all at the same time.”
Music and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.
Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.
McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Louise Erdrich is the reigning queen of Native American fiction, author of award-winning books for adults and children which showcase her native heritage. Her newest novel, LaRose, reflects Anishinaabe traditions as she explores the rippling consequences of tragedy and how two families adapt in both traditional and modern ways.
Landreaux Iron is a good man. He’s a loving father, faithful husband and sensitive nurse to his home health care patients. Hunting at the edge of reservation land, he takes aim at a deer meant to feed his family and instead accidentally shoots his neighbor’s little boy, Dusty Ravich, who is also Landraux’s nephew. Dusty’s death devastates his own family with grief and the Iron family with guilt. Landraux then commits a second unthinkable act: seeking guidance from his Ojibwe customs, he and his wife Emmeline give their own little boy, LaRose, to the Ravich family as atonement.
Erdrich unfolds this story at a leisurely pace. The grief experienced by the Ravich and Iron clans cannot be neatly packaged, and Erdrich allows parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to wander down separate paths as each tries to accommodate this unique double loss. Woven into the scrim dividing this life and the afterlife are the mystical stories of LaRose’s ancestors and the societal ills, historic and current, which plague the indigenous North Americans.
Visit with Erdrich online at her blog at Birchbark Books site, which is also a purveyor of Native books, arts and jewelry. To enjoy more stories featuring contemporary Ojibwe culture, try the Cork O’Connor suspense series by William Kent Krueger.