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Freedom Lessons: A Novel, by Eileen Harrison Sanchez.

August 9, 2019

Freedom Lessons?Freedom Lessons: A Novel, by Eileen Harrison Sanchez.  She Writes Press, 2019.

Forthcoming: November 12, 2019.

4 stars

A fictionalized memoir of the year that the white woman from New Jersey spent teaching black children in a small town in Louisiana where the school was desegregating.

Like the central figure in her story, Eileen Harrison Sanchez had been born and raised in a white suburb in New Jersey.  She also had accompanied her new military husband south for the school year, 1969.  She accepted a job teaching second-grade black children.  She tells how she had found the children easy to love and teach, but she was totally naïve about the racial issues and culture of small-town Louisiana. After a year, Sanchez returned to New Jersey where she had a successful career as a teacher and educational administrator.  Throughout her work in education, she focused attention on the problems involved in desegregation.  Now retired, her website includes “Gram’s Book Club,” a blog suggesting books to help children deal with racial issues.

In Freedom Lesson,   Colleen, the chief narrator and stand-in for the author, arrives in Louisiana totally unprepared to deal with the racial segregation she found in place there.  White teachers reject her for being willing to take a job in the black school.  Slowly she begins to learn what is and is not acceptable.Evelyn, a black teacher assigned to mentor her reluctantly becomes her friend teaching her the local history.

Just as Colleen settles into her class, the school board abruptly close the black school and integrates the black students which they consdiered decidedly inferior to the white ones in all ways.  Black teachers with excellent teaching records were fired and their students given white teachers. Frank, a secondary narrator, relates what that integration meant to high schoolers.  He was a star football player with reasonable hopes of going to college on an athletic scholarship, but at the high school, blacks were not allowed to play on the first team.  Instead, his options shrank to joining the army and going to Viet Nam.

Sanchez has given us a narrative that is critical today as racism again surfaces in the United States. ago. She provides us with a fair and factual narrative of a place and time of deep conflict without shrinking from judgment about what was happening.   Her narrative is an account of how she gained her own moral clarity.  Yet she also includes a variety of other characters and voices by including secondary narrators.  The book is much more than the story of one white woman.

Part of the power of the book is the revelation of how white administrators did all they could to hurt the blacks whom they are forced to integrate.  In Sanchez’s story, blacks lost what little they had before their school was closed.  That was true in her experience and in other places.  But the stories of integration varied widely, as Sanchez knows.  Not all the black students and teachers lost, as Tamala Harris has pointed out to Joe Biden.  Many blacks were able to become important professionals today because of the larger project of busing and integration.  That is why we so need to understand the different stories.

She Writes Press is the publisher of Freedom Lessons.  They are an unusual publisher, somewhere between traditional publishing houses and private publication. The organization views itself as a community, working with women through various stages of the writing and publishing process, helping them share their own narratives.  Some books, like this one, focus on public stories; others tell more private stories of sexuality and abuse. Do check them out.

Freedom Lessons needs to be read and talked about today, particularly, but not exclusively in schools. The Civil Rights Movement forced open some parts of our society, but white supremacy is all too present in our country today.  We need a new, informed citizenry to fight for tolerance and understanding.

In Dependence, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. 

July 19, 2019

In DependenceIn Dependence, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika.  Cassava Republic Press, October 1, 2019.  (First published 2008).


4 stars.

An excellent novel tells of a Nigerian man going to Oxford just as his nation is declaring independence. The young man, and the woman he loves, live in a constantly changing world and their future is bittersweet.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika was born and raised in Kenya and has lived in Kenya, France, and England.  Her Ph.D. is from the University of California at Berkeley, and she taught at San Francisco State.  The other book she has published is Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun.

In Dependence follows the love story of an ambitious young Nigerian man and the attractive white daughter of an English ambassador he meets in England. Both are bright, brave, and idealistic individuals. Their devotion to each other and their dreams is caught up in the sweeping changes around conception of gender and race. Although each is successful as an individual, neither finds real fulfilment  Ties to country and family compete with their love of each other. The book follows both of them as they build lives for themselves but struggle to find meaning.

Manyika is a fine storyteller.  Despite a large cast of characters, she moves her characters smoothly through a variety of situations.  In the process, she depicts both the personal issues for people seeking to follow their own paths as they move through a time of enormous political and social changes.

I strongly recommend this book to other readers.

A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier.

July 13, 2019

A single Thread
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier.  Penguin, September, 2019.


4 stars

The story of a woman in her thirties, single in England after World War I, defining herself outside of marriage.

Tracy Chevalier has established herself as a popular author of novels in a variety of English settings.  Born in 1962 and raised in the United States, she attended Oberlin College, graduating with a degree in English.  Then she moved to England where she worked in publishing until earning an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.  She has published nine novels, including The Girl with the Pearl Earring.

Violet, the major character in Chevalier’s newest book, lost both her brother and her fiancée in the “Great War.”  She is part of a generation of “surplus women” left after World War I because of its excessive male casualties.  Her father has also died, and she finds herself living at home caring for her cantankerous mother.  Taking her life in her own hands, she moves to nearby Winchester where she becomes involves with a group of “brodierers,” women who are embroidering cushions for the Winchester Cathedral.  She also meets men who are bell ringersat the church.  Forced to meet challenges, she makes hard choices as she grows into an independent individual.

Chevalier is an enjoyable writer and it is easy to see why she popular.  Her detailed research on the embrodieries and bellringers opens new doors for readers.  She also places her characters in the context of both the First World War and the growing threat of the Second World War.  Although the situations that she portrays are specific to her time and place, the questions of loyalty to family that she raises are universal.

I gladly recommend this novel.

The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel, by Monique Truong.

July 7, 2019

The Sweetest Fruits
The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel, by Monique Truong.  Viking, September  2019.


4 stars

An international writer’s life as imagined by an American author and told from the perspectives of women who knew him; his biographer, his mother, and his two wives.

Monique Truong is a Vietnamese-American author and the author of two previous, popular and prize-winning books.  She was born in Saigon in 1968 and came to America with her parents in 1975. She grew up in the American South, graduated from Yale, and earned a law degree from Columbia.  Her book, Bitter in the Month, is a fictionalized version of her early life.

The Sweetest Fruits is Truong’s account of Lafcadio Hearn, an early twentieth-century author, born in Greece and raised in Ireland.  As a young man, he came to Cincinnati where he worked as a journalist before going to the Caribbean and later Japan.  Truong tells his story through four different voices.  In 1906 his female biographer and patron mainly supplied basic facts of his life.  Hearn’s mother, a woman of the Greek islands, writes to him as a toddler explaining why she took him to his British father’s family and then essentially abandoned him.  The African American woman he met and married in Cincinnati describes what he was like when they were married and lived in the city.  The Japanese woman with whom he also married and with whom he had four children tells of his later years.

Hearn comes across as an engaging wanderer with little ability to put down roots.  More important to Truong’s book, he serves as a focus for her exploration of different perspectives.  Given his unconventional life, Truong also explores issues of living at the edges of society as an exile and observer in cultures not his own.  My favorite section was that in which Hearn’s Cincinnati wife gives an interview to a white woman about her life with him.   Mattie, the cook at his boarding house, relates the pleasure and joy of their time together although their bonds as an inter-racial couple were not legal.  The woman interviewing her has absolutely no sense of life as lived by a black, working-class woman, and Mattie regularly sets her straight with just the right sense of polite disgust.

Truong is an imaginative and experimental writer, a sheer pleasure to read. Her extensive research is presented with lightness and grace. This is a delightful book even if you care nothing about Hearn.  It is about what it means to be a human being, living outside the privileges we assume.

Do read this engaging book.

Eightysomethings, by Katharine Etsy.

June 24, 2019

Eightysomethings:  A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Seeking Happiness, and Aging Well, by Katharine Etsy.  Skyhorse Publishing, September 2019.

3 stars

A shallow description by a psychotherapist of people in their eighties whom she interviewed about their lives and thoughts.

Katharine Etsy is a psychotherapist in her eighties, now living in a retirement community.  She has published several books including one on workplace diversity.  For Eightysomethings , she interviewed 128 women and men in their eighties and 26 of their children.  Although a few African American and a few who received government assistance are among her interviewees, the overwhelming majority are white individuals affluent enough to live in retirement communities.  Yet, despite their demographic similarities, Etsy clearly shows the variety of ways in which her subjects react to aging.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Eightysomethings is the substantial quotations from Etsy’s interviewees.  These are informative and fun to read.  They reveal that there is no one way to age or one acceptable pattern of emotion or response. But the interviews are mostly descriptive with little said about how or why the interviewers feel or think as they do. The interviews are grouped in loosely organized topical chapters with little analysis.  Despite the book’s subtitle, there is little practical guidance about how to age or even a definition of aging well.

Etsy has written a generally upbeat book, with minimal exploration of problems.  A few interviewees express anger or bitterness over losses.  More bemoan their lack of energy or mobility.  Yet there is little attention given to the legitimate pains and grief of our eighties.  The idea that as individuals and a society we need to pay more attention to elders is fine, but hardly radical or helpful. The book was too relentlessly upbeat for my taste.

In Jerusalem, by Lis Harris.

June 18, 2019

In Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family, by Lis Harris.   Beacon Press, September 17, 2019.  FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A balanced account by a moderate Jewish woman of her interviews with both Jewish and Arab families in Jerusalem about their extended families faced in the long conflicts between their communities.

Lis Harris is a respected American journalist, for 25 years a staff writer on The New Yorker magazine, in addition to contributing to other national publications. She now teaches writing at Columbia University.  She describes herself as a secular Jew and has written several books about her religious tradition. She knew about the Jewish experiences during and after World War II and how Israelis have treated Arabs. For her the question was how actual people on both sides had experienced the tension and violence of migration and settlement of Jews in Palestine.  She spent over ten years interviewing and coming to know various members of two extended families, one Jewish and one Arab, and researching her new book.

Harris is not interested in the official positions of leaders or in writing yet another polemic about the conflict.  Instead she wants to explore what it has felt like to live with the dangers and trauma on both sides.  She is a careful and fair witness, always respectful of her subjects on both sides.  She never belittles their sufferings or viewpoints or takes sides.  At the same time, she constantly keeps their stories in the context of how much more actual destruction has been caused by the Israelis.  It is terrifying for enemies to blow up a nearby shop, but in terms of people killed and displaced Arabs far outnumber Jewish residents.  Arabs have been displaced and continue to live under severely restricted circumstances.  Part of the explanation that Harris suggests is that some ordinary Jewish people were simply too wrapped up in their own pain and fear to be concerned about the actions against Arab residents by their government and their fellow citizens.  I don’t find that a strong explanation, but I appreciated Harris’s ability to describe how people live through generations of warfare.

In Jerusalem is a big and impressive book which attempts to interweave a great deal of material.  Harris follows her two families at the same time she provides enough of the larger history of battles and invasions for readers unfamiliar with the region.  The breadth of vision sometimes makes the book difficult to read.  None the less, I admire what she has undertaken.

I encourage others to read this book.

Unmaking Grace, by Barbara Boswell. 

June 11, 2019

Unmaking Grace
Unmaking Grace, by Barbara Boswell.   Catalyst,  December 2019.  (First published 2017 as Grace.) FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A novel about a South African girl, growing up amidst domestic violence and the public violence of the fight against apartheid and afterward facing the scars that continued to disrepute her life.

Barbara Boswell is a feminist literary scholar, born in Pennsylvania in 1946.  She earned her Ph.D. in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Maryland and has taught at various universities in the United States and South Africa.  She is particularly interested in feminist, queer, and post-colonial theory and women writers of the black diaspora, and she has researched how South African women have dealt with apartheid in their writings.  Her academic writing is full of fascinating titles.  In addition to her scholarly work, Boswell has written over fifty romance novels set in Africa.  Although her fiction is informed by her knowledge and conceptual understanding of race and gender, she seems to have kept the two strands of writing separate.

Remaking Grace centers on romantic love and how it can go right or wrong. An action-filled and enjoyable book to read, it is written in a straight forward style that masks Boswell’s deep knowledge. Yet it is not a stereotypical romance novel.  In it Boswell explores class and gender issues and divisions within the South African community.  She traces how and why women get caught in circles of violence and how such violence gets passed along to the next generation.  Yet the book is never grim and depressive. While the ending is positive, Grace is not saved by a lover.

I strongly recommend Remaking Grace for many readers.  Although Boswell is not originally from Africa, she provides us with a profound taste of women’s lives there and in abusive situations around the globe.