Review: 2017 National Book Award Winner

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award for Fiction and recent MacArthur Genius Award winner Jesmyn Ward explores family bonds and racial prejudice and oppression in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Racism permeates the patch traversed by Jojo and his sister Kayla, his grandfather Pop and dying mother Mam, and his self-absorbed mother Leonie and his white father Michael, the pair not much older than children, and brings forth his murdered uncle Given, and another thirteen-year-old boy Richie, killed on the prison farm of Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Both Given and Richie, visible to Jojo, seek but can never find the release of justice, both stark and brutal reminders that post-racial America exists merely as a rhetorical phrase fronting a myth. As grim as this sounds, and as shocking as the family’s odyssey proves, Ward does find hope in the familial bonds of Jojo, Kayla, and Pop.

The story is about two journeys, one in real time and the other through recent history. Leonie solicits her white friend Misty, who has an imprisoned black boyfriend, to retrieve Michael from Parchman with her, where he has finished his term for cooking and selling meth. She thinks it’s a good idea to bring along her children, Kayla, a toddler, and Jojo, thirteen. As readers learn, she isn’t much of a mother, so bad and absent that her children can’t call her mom. She works but her passions are Michael, longing for Michael, and getting high. The burden of caring for the children fall to Pop and Mam, who now lies in bed, wracked by pain as she dies of cancer. Fortunately for Kayla and Jojo, Pop knows how to care for his family. As Jojo and Kayla share a special bond, so do Jojo and Pop. Pop teaches him how to live on the farm, the secrets of the woods and the animals, and of survival. He’s a man who has seen and experienced much pain in his life, including having served a term as a teen in Parchman. Slowly, over time, he tells Jojo the story of Richie, which is the tale of black oppression summed up in the short, brutal life of a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a story Pop can barely finish, because, as readers will eventually learn, the ending is so horrifying.

Needless to say, the auto trip proves excruciating for the four, partly because Kayla becomes sick during it and nobody but Jojo seems to care or know how to comfort and help the child. When they eventually pick up Michael, the return trip devolves into something even more harrowing. Before getting Micheal, Leonie and Misty stop over at their lawyer’s house, Al. When you are dirt poor, as these people are, you get the Als of the world, representation by a drug addled wasted white man. He sends them off with crystal meth, and wouldn’t you know it, only hours out of prison, a cop pulls them over. Leonie, out love perhaps, desperation for certain, swallows the meth and what results nearly costs the travelers their freedom, and Jojo his life. It’s a scene straight out of a worst nightmare.

As if this wasn’t enough, Leonie possesses the ability envied by her mother, of seeing the dead. Perhaps this is supernatural, but it’s more likely the pain of losing her brother Given to murder. Suffice to say here that against all good advice, star athlete Given thought his white teammates regarded him as he regarded him, as brothers. In the end, his trust and misreading of race killed him as surely as the bullet. Let’s leave it for readers to discover the circumstances on their own. Leonie believes she sees him, voiceless, observing all her bad deeds. Jojo possesses this ability as well. It manifests when they pick up Michael from Parchman and Richie hitches a ride to find his old benefactor, Pop, whom he knows as River. What is little, perpetually a child Ritchie seeking? He’s wants the one person he felt ever acknowledged and cared about him. There’s much sadness here, but none sadder than Ritchie and what he represents.

While many will think, no, this isn’t a book for me, it, in fact, probably is a book for you, and especially for people who will never know about it. Because it is a story that needs telling and feeling on a visceral level, with the right among of openness to receive and acknowledge it. Strongly recommended. w/c

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The Outlaw’s Daughter Grows Up

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti merges two genres, coming of age and crime thriller, into a powerful tale of a daughter learning about her often absent outlaw father, then bonding with him, accepting him for the imperfect man he is, and discovering her own inner strength. Though filled with violence and plenty of death dealing, it ultimately finishes on a hopeful note, and stands as a testament to the goodness and love within even the most ruthless people.

The novel alternates between Loo, the daughter, growing up from age twelve to just shy of eighteen and the nomadic life of her father, an outlaw who freelances in crime. You have Loo and Hawley living together, learning about each other and Hawley’s criminal life centered around how he came to acquire eleven gunshot wounds. How he received these and curiosity about how he will get his last, the twelfth, plus how Loo will react when she discovers what Hawley really is, provide the propulsive drive of the novel.

Hawley has been a criminal nearly from the time he was a teen. He hooked up with Jove, an older man who claimed to be a doctor. Maybe he was, because he teaches Hawley quite a bit about field treating injuries, especially gunshot wounds. Hawley travels with a well stocked medical kit. Bad guys, after all, can’t just present themselves in emergency rooms. He and Jove see each other when they are working on a job for a kingpin named King. King deals in rare artifacts, which Hawley and Jove retrieve for him. When contractors steal from him, King dispatches Hawley and Jove to collect and mete out the criminal version of justice.

King’s a man who lurks in the shadows. Hawley meets him for the first time in a diner, where he also mets Lily, a memorable pairing. Eventually, he marries Lily. They have a baby, Louise, nicknamed Loo. Something terrible happens to Lily, reported back in her hometown as a drowning. This leaves Hawley with Loo. Hawley, though, has business to take care off, so he leaves Loo with Lily’s mom, Mabel Ridge, an eccentric and crusty character, in the coastal New England fishing town Lily grew up in. Hawley returns after four years and takes Loo back. With her, they traverse the country, dodging whatever Hawley believes wants to find them.

Finally, when Loo is older, they settle in the New England town. When she turns twelve, the start of the novel, he teaches her how to shoot. Let’s just say her upbringing bears not the remotest resemblance to that of Anne of Green Gables. She’s odd girl out at school, terrifically strong-willed, constantly rebellious, and sometimes given to violence. Marshall, a student in her school, develops a crush on her. When he kisses her, she responds by breaking his finger. He’s odd, too, and slowly they fit together.

Time passes and we readers she her relationship with Hawley change and deepen. We learn more about her mother, Lily, whom in spirit she bears a striking resemble to. And we feel a certain amount of tension, because it is quite clear Hawley lives an edgy life, waiting for something to happen, waiting for somebody to catch up with him. Then Jove reappears, surprising Hawley and Loo. And then we slid into a climax that calls on all the knowledge Loo has acquired, the astronomy she knows, what she’s learned about the ocean, and, of course, her shooting skills. The ending proves very cinematic.

While the novel contains copious amounts of crime and violence and the ending brings these together in the ultimate test of father-daughter bonding, it’s at its heart a story of girl growing and discovering herself and a father learning again how to love, this time his daughter. Tinti’s writing and mastery of criminal life, weapons, the outdoors, the sea, the sky, and human motivation will impress you, and are another reason to read the novel. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

The Many Color Coats of Joyce Carol Oates

Man Crazy

By Joyce Carol Oates

In a publishing world where authors generally slot into genres and sub-genres and pretty much remain there for their entire writing careers, Joyce Carol Oates is a renegade. She’s an author who allows an idea, the thread of a storyline, a vague character outline, a headline, just about anything, to spark her imagination and pen to life. These can roll of the press as literary novels, gothic romances, historical novels, murder mysteries, or even lurid excursions into darkness (most recently like Jack of Spades). It’s said of authors that they just have got to write. However true that might be of others, it’s certainly true of JCO; writing for her seems a compulsion, wherein a day isn’t complete without at least a few thousands words on a legal pad. Thus you have an author who produces them and Wonderland, Bellefleur and My Heart Laid Bare, Zombie and Daddy Love, Blonde and The Accursed, Foxfire and this 1997 novel Man Crazy. You really have to admire, perhaps even envy both her versatility and her prolificacy, particularly in the light of the variety.

She can be a bit challenging for readers who wish to peg her as something. For example, you read her gothic novels and look for more of the same and find yourself disappointed when you encounter something completely different. Which is simply to say, with JCO, the way to enjoy her best is to give yourself over to variety and skillful writing and not expect exactly the same thing next time; or familiarize yourself with her novels and stick with those more in keeping with what you like to read. With her, you’ll surely find something.

So, here you have from 1997 Man Crazy, a tale of how a teen, Ingrid Boone, makes all the wrong choices in pursuit of her need to be loved, choices that lead her into a murderous satanic motorcycle cult (it doesn’t get much more lurid than this!) that almost takes her life but in a complete reversal, instead, proves redemptive, bringing her what she wants in her early twenties. Not at all like what preceded it, her highly regarded We Were the Mulvaneys, and what followed, another entry in her Gothic Saga. Man Crazy dovetails with Foxfire, and more the precipitating early years covered in Mudwoman. It’s often pulpy and vulgar, verging often on insanity conveyed in a tumult of very loud words.

Even among the pulp, as always with her, you’ll find some keen observations of human life, things in the back of your mind that you just can’t articulate, but which she can, as through Ingrid near the end of her dangerous search for love: “For what I can remember is but a fraction of what was, as all that is is but a fraction of what was.”

Which is to say, even what may seen the lesser Oates is usually more than what most authors offer you. w/c

Girls Revolt in the 1950s

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

By Joyce Carol Oates

What could be scarier to the hidebound male sex than assertive, feminist females running in packs and extracting retribution on those males for sexually abusive behavior? Thank goodness the always versatile and inventive Oates set her “Confessions of a Girl Gang” in the 1950s, in an era just before the modern feminist movement built steam and acquired spokeswomen. Because you would think that many of the girls’ complaints would have been diminished or nearly eliminated by now, or by 1993, when the novel published. Yet the sexual abuse, the fact of being relegated to second class status, the presumptions of weakness, all continue to this day. Perhaps that was one of Oates’ points in writing the novel: to illustrate just how limited our progress on equality for women despite the fog of progress.

Five girls, gang names Goldie, Lana, Rita, and Maddy, coalesce around the natural leader, Legs Sadovsky, who sports spiked hair atop a boyish figure. Maddy is like an organization’s secretary, keeping a journal of what transpired when the girls were mere budding adolescents. She’s looking back with some early maturity ensconced in a highly disciplined career and warns us from the beginning that Foxfire, their gang name, went off the tracks. As the tale progresses, we learn that Foxfire revenge escalated from physically harmless, though humiliating, vandalism to kidnapping, from congregating in Legs’ bedroom, to buying a house that serves as their clubhouse and residence, as well as hope for an expanding gang of young girls, who many would regard as runaways. What happens to the girls, and especially Legs, who is generally the focus of Maddy’s attention, when the gang skids into the danger zone? Well, that’s as intriguing as revengeful girl gangs in the 1950s.

Oates writes with a fierceness tempered with introspection that both reflects Legs rebelliousness and Maddy’s admiration and concerns for her and what has transpired. While not one of Oates’s best, still a cut above novels and recommended. w/c

Dawn Powell Tells Her Story

My Home Is Far Away

By Dawn Powell

Anyone with the least bit of introspection understands just how difficult being honest with oneself can be. Then there is the dynamic of family and friends, the desire to be truthful often tempered with the fear of offending and alienating. Add to this mix clarity of writing and the spotlight of publication and you can appreciate the personal trial and relief of the best probing memoirs, and this most personal autobiographical novel of the great and woefully under appreciated observer of high artistic society at mid twentieth century, Dawn Powell.

Readers and admirers of Powell will certainly appreciate the insight she affords us into her upbringing. Though not as biting and satirical as her best known collection of New York novels, among them The Locusts Have No King (a personal favorite), The Wicked Pavilion, or the Golden Spur, My Home Is Far Away entertains with a brand of humor quizzical like a child’s but written with the precision of a highly accomplished author. As an example for those on the fence about jumping into the book, here’s a passage introducing us to Marcia’s (Powell’s stand-in) and her sisters’ vacation on their aunt and uncle’s farm:

“The finest feature of life on the farm was the vacation from manners. Voices were never lowered; indeed, a normal tone was regarded as city affectation, and a suspicious attempt at secrecy. You could hear Uncle Louie talking far off in the barn to visitors, and even in the very same room he and Aunt Betts shouted at each other as if they were acres apart. It may have been that this constant noise kept them from being lonesome. At any rate, the shrill nasal pitch maintained indoors and out by the couple and all their neighbors managed to convey hearty good humor, open hearts and solid virtue. Marcia and Lena tried to achieve the same effect in their speech but it evidently took years of training to get your voice to come twanging through your nose that way, and when you tried it your very palate seemed to whirr like a banjo string…. Fancy table manners were also suspect, indicating a desire to seem better than ordinary folks. Such airs as ‘Please pass the butter’ were almost insults, and likely to be reprimanded by Uncle Louie saying ‘What are your arms for?’”

However, Powell’s young life was anything but a barrel of laughs. Her mother died when she was very young. Her father, though loving, was at best a hapless itinerant salesman, and her stepmother was, to put it mildly, selfish and cruel to the three sisters (Phyllis, Dawn, and Mabel). Her portrayal of her stepmother is scathing and life with her the very definition of child abuse. From this, Lena (Phyllis) and Marcia desire nothing more than to escape.

Readers not familiar with Powell’s work can easily enjoy this autobiographical novel on several levels. The childlike observations expressed with adult sensibility are delightful even if you know nothing of Powell. Powell’s recreation of 1900s Midwestern life reminds us of a more rugged, more self-sufficient, and harsher America. It also illustrates the diversity then of life in America, with myriad cultures living just in the area surrounding Powell’s hometown of Gilead, Ohio. And perhaps most of all, there’s the resilience of Powell and her sisters that will touch many readers. w/c

Growing Up Mormon

The Latter Days

by Judith Freeman

Judith Freeman thinks back over her upbringing in a Mormon community, seeking the threads that led her to become a writer and how her younger years influence and reappear in her writing, as it does, for instance, in her first novel, The Chinchilla Farm. (Oddly, in direct contradiction of her bio in the book itself, the dust jacket notes that she is at work on her first novel, an error the publisher hopefully will correct in a reprint or a trade edition.)

Her young life proved eventful by anyone’s definition: youthful marriage, the challenge of a very ill child, divorce, a long-term affair with a famous heart surgeon, and estrangement from her religion. However, what really stands out and what most readers will find fascinating is the picture she paints of growing up Mormon in Ogden, Utah, for then (she was born in 1946), as probably now, it was a place unto itself, unique in comparison to other places in the U.S.

Mormon beliefs and the church comprised the central feature of her upbringing. She came from a large family, though not nearly as large as other Mormon families. Living in a large family comes with its own set of issues, not the least of which revolve around your place in the lineup and feelings of affection from your parents. Even more though, and something many might at first blush find comforting but upon reflection might understand as stifling was the dominance of community in everyday life. For, in contrast to most religions in this country, Mormonism is all encompassing, an inescapable feature of living; in other words, it’s not something you visit only on Sundays. How such community bears down on living and maturing, how it restricts individuality and promotes a very strong sense of group and group thinking, comes through in Freeman’s remembrances.

Freeman writes cleanly and simply and, thus, brings emotional power to many of the events of her life, and might have you seeking out her novels. And while she grew up as a Mormon, nonetheless, family and religious beliefs exert an influence on most people. Many of these people, in conscious ways and through drift, move beyond these powerful influences of their youth. It’s this relatable story that Freeman tells so effectively. w/c