Jam! on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

The vivid life of an African American newspaperwoman, civil rights activist and lover both entertains and inspires.

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LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam! on the Vine, is filled with color, suffering and feeling. Barnett’s protagonist Ivoe Williams is inspired by the life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, newspaperwoman, suffragette and civil rights leader, and she sparkles from the first page, when she steals newspapers from her mother’s white employer to revel in the smell of the ink and the magic of print. Her mother, a Muslim and a former slave, is a talented gardener and cook, her father a masterful storyteller, so she is surrounded by art and encouraged in her education. The plucky Ivoe, a native of rural Texas born just after Emancipation, receives an unlikely scholarship to attend college in Austin, where she studies printing and journalism. She returns home overqualified for the kind of work available to young black women. Under the forces of power and prejudice, the Williams family will ultimately fracture and be forced to migrate to the city, where new challenges await. Ivoe finds love and purpose in work, eventually founding a Kansas City newspaper called Jam! on the Vine, which pursues the rights of African-Americans and women.

The connections to Wells-Barnett’s life are vague; the vibrancy of Ivoe’s trials and loves are a credit to Barnett the author. Sensual evocations are among Jam!‘s greatest triumphs: the Texas dirt and the tomato vines it sprouts, the savory jam crafted by Ivoe’s mother from their fruit, the family’s music and laughter, blood and pain and pleasure. Ivoe is stimulated by her study at the university, the tactile challenge of setting type and the intellectual exertions of politics and social justice. She grows from a gutsy child to become a famished student, then a frustrated young woman and, finally, finds love and joy and danger, in the Red Summer of race riots in 1919.

It is no exaggeration that the beautifully written Jam! on the Vine recalls Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Sensuality, pleasure and pain, as well as the righteous difficulties of the early civil rights movement, yield a story that is passionate, inspired and lively. Barnett’s (editor of I Got Thunder and Off the Record) prose flows with rhythm and feeling, and her characters both major and minor are intriguing. While Ivoe’s hard, important work and her love of written words will endear her especially to readers interested in the history of journalism and the civil rights movement, this literary novel has broad appeal.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 jars.

book beginnings on Friday: Jam! on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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The first novel from a professor with several nonfiction titles to her name, Jam! on the Vine has both a beautiful cover and a striking title. It’s set in Texas, and stars a fictional version of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. We begin:

Ivoe liked to carry on about all she could do. Still, how to mend a broken promise had her beat.

I think this is both sweet and intriguing. As opening lines, they’ll do. As ever, stay tuned…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 5, 2014.


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The Jaguar’s Children is a striking and heartrending first novel by John Vaillant (The Tiger; The Golden Spruce). It opens with a text message.

Thu Apr 5 – 08:31 [text]
Hello I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance–I am Hector –Cesar’s friend–It’s an emergency now for Cesar–Are you in el norte? I think we are also–Arizona near Nogales or Sonoita–Since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming–We need water and a doctor–And a torch for cutting metal

The sender is Hector María de la Soledad Lázaro Gonzalez, a young man from a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He has paid 30,000 pesos to a band of coyotes to be transported across the Mexican border, from Altar in Sonora into Arizona. Along with his companion Cesar and 13 others, Hector has been sealed inside a water tank for this illegal journey, and the truck has broken down and the passengers–now prisoners–have been abandoned.

With Cesar injured, Hector becomes responsible for his friend as well as for himself. The plight of the 15 people trapped in the truck is the central struggle of the book, which spans only a few days in real time, from Hector’s discovery of Cesar’s hidden cell phone (containing only one U.S. phone number, for a person Hector doesn’t know) to their eventual fate. During these days, as food supplies and water dwindle and the immigrants bicker and weaken, Hector uses the phone to compose text messages and record lengthy sound files in which he tells his story, and Cesar’s. The Jaguar’s Children is the transcript of these messages.

Hector initially identifies himself as Cesar’s friend, but as his chronicle unfolds, it becomes clear that their connection is more tenuous. Originally schoolmates, Cesar is older, more successful and popular, and Hector is rather a hanger-on; in the hours before their departure from the border town of Altar, however, Cesar began to unburden himself to the younger man. Hector is at first hopeful that his unknown contact in the United States will save the truckload of thirsty immigrants, but as conditions worsen and he gets no response, he feels an increasing urgency to record the story of both lives. His narrative thus progressively deepens, and gains increasing gravity.

Unquestionably, the immigrants’ suffering is a large part of the novel’s significant and essential emotional impact: these people are treated as worse than beasts by the coyotes who leave them in such straits, and their torments are both unimaginable and graphically described. This agony is leavened somewhat by the interspersed history of Hector’s life in Oaxaca, but even those tales are disturbing, as they examine the injustices and poverty that drive Hector and Cesar to undertake such a dangerous flight in the first place. Principally, however, Vaillant’s masterful debut novel is deeply compelling, realistic and heartfelt, and brings to light important considerations about the way we treat one another.

Vaillant’s writing is extremely well crafted, precise and poetic, not only painfully affecting but carefully structured. He uses Spanish-language word order and sentence structure, so that Hector’s voice speaks aloud from the page. This sense of realism is outstanding, and while it is part of what makes this book distressing, it is also a fine achievement. Indeed, the reader must beware the fine line between fact and fiction, as Hector’s is represented as a true story to the less discerning members of the audience. That this story could happen–does happen–is part of its import.

The Jaguar’s Children is at once a work of intense suspense, as we worry over the question of Hector and Cesar’s survival, a larger story of conflict between two nations, and the indigenous cultures in a parallel struggle for survival. Lyrically composed, tragic and disturbing, Hector’s account will certainly be one of the most memorable books of the year. This heartbreaking novel is worth the pain, for the wisdom it has to share and the respects it can help us all to pay.


Rating: 9 capfuls.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Vaillant.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

John Vaillant, nonfiction author, makes his fiction debut with a shockingly beautiful and painful novel called The Jaguar’s Children.

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At the border town of Altar in the Mexican state of Sonora, a taking-off point for many immigrants who buy the services of coyotes to cross into Arizona…

There are stalls there with things to buy, but there is nothing for the house or the milpa, nothing nice to eat or to wear. Besides expensive water, it is mostly clothes and almost all of them are black or gray – T-shirts, jackets, balaclavas and gloves, even the bags – so you can be invisible in the desert, in the dark, because that is what a migrante needs to be to make it in el Norte.

Stay tuned for a Maximum Shelf to come. I am excited to share this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Wawahte by Robert P. Wells

Wells tells a haunting tale of three Canadian Indians and abuse during their forced schooling in government institutions.

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In Wawahte, Robert P. Wells sets out to tell the story of Canada’s First Nation children who were taken from their homes and their parents by the Canadian government and installed in Indian residential schools. For more than one hundred years, from 1883 to 1996, generations of children were subjected to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, racism, and denigration in these institutions, and were punished for speaking their native languages or practicing their beliefs. As told to Wells by three Indian residential school survivors, these haunting narratives are a familiar but gripping story of Western imperial dominance. While the writing is unpolished, the accounts are nonetheless harrowing and important.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on August 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews. 8-29-2014 10-30-23 AM


My rating: 5 nights.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (audio)

runawayFrom the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I read pre-blog, and loved), another historical novel of women’s lives. I recently tried reading Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, but I found I couldn’t appreciate it. No such problem with The Last Runaway.

Honor Bright is a small-town British Quaker in 1850, a young woman recently abandoned by her fiance, her future uncertain. Her sister Grace will soon be departing for the New World to marry; Honor decides, somewhat impetuously, to accompany her and find a different life. She can always come back home, right? But the sea voyage – heralded as the shortest and easiest passage possible – nearly kills her, she is so seasick. When she finally sets foot in America, she knows that, no, she can never go home.

On the overland trip to Ohio (by coach – their plan to take riverboats being prevented by Honor’s seasickness), where Grace’s fiance awaits, Grace falls sick and dies. Honor will arrive alone, and ahead of the letter announcing her coming, so that the fiance, Adam, expects one sister but finds another. His brother has likewise died, leaving him now with a widowed sister-in-law as well as this almost-sister-in-law. Honor’s place is decidedly uncertain, and uncomfortable. The new Ohio Quaker community of Faithwell does not look approvingly upon Adam’s strange household. The pressure is on, therefore, for Honor to find herself a husband; but she is without even a friend in her new hometown.

She does have a friend a day trip away, however, in Wellington: Belle Mills, of Mills Millinery, who nursed Honor through an illness and sheltered her, and gave her work. Honor is a gifted seamstress and quilter, and her skills were appreciated in Belle’s shop. Quakers can’t wear colorful or decorative hats, but Honor enjoyed making them for others; and Honor got along with Belle, although the non-Quaker’s coarse speech and whiskey drinking were new to Honor. (Honor’s sewing and quilting are a strong framing element throughout the story: quilts in the English and the new American styles are described, and provide examples of Honor’s homesickness, and her new community’s intolerance of her English traditions. I thought of my mother, the quilter, who I think would appreciate these details.) Also simultaneously fascinating and disturbing is Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave-hunter; and this is where the conflict of the novel begins.

As a Quaker and as a moral being, Honor is naturally repelled by slavery; but it is easier to abhor the peculiar institution from England, where it is distant and (forgive the phrase) black-and-white. In Ohio, Honor sees black people for almost the first time, and encounters runaway slaves who she is naturally inclined to help; she also sees Donovan working to re-enslave them. When she does marry local dairy farmer Jack Haymaker, Honor finds not a soulmate or even companion; but she does find a nasty mother-in-law and sister-in-law. When they discover that Honor has been offering minor assistance to runaways – food, water, directions to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, in Oberlin – they forbid her to help further.

The issue, then, is between obedience to her new (if unlikeable) family, versus her feelings about slavery. Honor will grow as she has to form new relationships, and not always easy ones: alliances with a black woman in Oberlin named Mrs. Reed, and with the colorful Belle Mills; and she has to find a way to relate to her new husband and in-laws that will work for each of them.

I noticed I was approaching the end of this audiobook and things felt so up in the air I couldn’t believe they’d be wrapped up in time. And indeed, the reader would appreciate a sequel to find out what finally becomes of Honor’s new family; but they are sent on their way in good time, with no loose ends, at least. Honor’s character sees a satisfactory arc: she grows, expands, speaks up for herself, considers different positions and stakes her own. And her new life is indeed established in the end.

I thought the Underground Railroad was ably portrayed, if only simplistically; the runaway slaves have some personality, and Belle Mills is a great hit. The quilting element, as I said, was an added appeal as well. But it’s Honor herself who stars, rightfully. I think Tracy Chevalier still has it here, and would recommend this novel. It’s somewhat lightweight in the issues it addresses, perhaps, but it makes its points, and is more accessible than novels on this subject sometimes are, so it will appeal to the popular reader.

The audio performance by Kate Reading (great name, that!) is fine as well. I liked the different accents she used; they provided real color and personality. I would happily recommend this format.


Rating: 7 tin cups.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

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