On March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.
On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.
Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.
A lame orphan, an incompetent grifter and London’s Blitz might comprise a fairly grim story. Instead, author Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart: A Novel is darkly comedic and heartwarming as it focuses on the incongruous pairing of a posh city child and his conniving country mouse foster parent.
Meet Mrs. Vee Sedge: resident of rural St. Albans, lives with her indolent adult son and disabled mother who writes motivational letters to Winston Churchill regarding homefront morale and offering friendly advice (“I saw your picture in the paper last week and I hope you don’t mind me saying that I wonder if you’re getting enough fresh air.”) Vee is so desperate for money that she’s taken out a life insurance policy on an elderly neighbor, who foils Vee’s plans by failing to die, and she goes door to door collecting money for the war effort which she keeps for herself. When Vee sees Noel limping through her village as part of a parade of children evacuated from London to evade Hitler’s bombs, she volunteers to care for the little boy, not out of patriotic duty, but as a prop to a con.
Noel is the child who never fits in. Precocious, pale and unathletic, he is also bereft since the death of his beloved godmother. Farmed out to the putative safety of the Sedge’s shabby quarters, Noel perks up when he realizes he can be the brains behind Vee’s ill-conceived swindles. World War II’s privations were harsh and Evans frames the duo’s petty frauds in a landscape where the common folk of England must scheme to survive. Nominated for a Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, Crooked Heart’s clever writing, multifaceted characters and thoughtful story make this an engaging read and a winning book club pick.
I got a revolver to protect us…and I soon had a use for it.” –The New York Times, June 3, 1915.
In 1915 suburban New Jersey, women were expected to behave as ladies and rely on the protection of a man. Instead, Constance Kopp and her two sisters go on the offensive in Amy Stewart’s lively novel, Girl Waits with Gun. Stewart was inspired by the true story of Constance, who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States after her fiery battles with thuggish silk mill owner Henry Kauffman and his gang captured America’s attention.
The sisters are on their way to Paterson for a shopping trip when a speeding motor car upends their horse and buggy, injuring young Fleurette and damaging the buggy. Driver Kauffman and his crew of miscreants take umbrage at Constance’s request for reimbursement for repairs, and begin a campaign of harassment and kidnapping threats aimed at the women, which escalates into violence. Constance refuses to be cowed by Kauffman’s machinations and ends up uncovering a second reprehensible and exploitive deed committed by Kauffman.
Girl Waits with Gun is a colorful piece of historical fiction. Stewart’s droll writing marries perfectly with Constance Kopp’s audacious story. Descriptions of the silk mill industry and its laborers, along with excerpts from the newspaper articles which covered the Kopp vs. Kauffman conflict, ground this narrative in the context of its time. Readers charmed by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows or Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries will take great pleasure in spending time with the Kopps. To learn more about Constance, Norma and Fleurette, visit AmyStewart.com.
Who recognizes this story? A young orphan lives with relatives who make her feel like a burden. To escape, she takes a job as a nanny to a little girl and falls in love with the child’s father. She flees that relationship to find herself in a second romantic entanglement but can’t forget about her first love. Yes, debut author Patricia Park freely admits that Re Jane was inspired by the Jane Eyre, but Park’s version is freshly minted and modern and anything but redundant.
Park’s Jane has a Korean mother and an American father, both of whom died when Jane was an infant. Jane has been raised in America by her traditional Korean uncle and his family, and works in his grocery in Queens. After a promising job offer in the financial sector falls through, Jane starts working as a live-in sitter for Devon, the adopted Chinese daughter of Beth and Bill Farley-Mazer. Gentrified Mazer family life opens a sophisticated new world for Jane, far from her familiar working class neighborhood of immigrants, and passion blooms between Jane and Bill. Just like the original heroine, Jane Re takes a trip to relieve her tap-tap-hai (an overwhelming discomfort), but her journey takes her to Korea to reconnect with extended family and explore her roots.
Park says the title Re Jane refers not only to her readaptation of the Bronte classic, but to Jane’s mixed heritage; Re is an Americanized version of the common Korean surname Ee, often pronounced in the United States as Lee. The cultural concept of nunchi, which Park describes as an expected social conduct combining anticipation and foresight, influences Jane as she struggles to find her footing as a Korean, an American, an adult and a woman. Sharply observant as well as endearing, readers will be pleased with this contemporary Jane.
Let’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.
Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.
Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.
Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.