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Jam on the Vine, La Shonda Katrice Barnett.

March 30, 2016

Jam on the Vine, La Shonda Katrice Barnett. Grove Press, 2015.

An historical novel set in the early twentieth century about a young black woman and her family living as sharecroppers in east Texas and moving on to Kansas City where she and the woman she loves found a newspaper devoted to exposing the injustice suffered by African Americans.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett grew up in Kansas City and Chicago. An African American herself, she has an M.A. in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Williams and Mary University.  She has taught in colleges, written fiction, musical criticism, and plays.  Jam on the Vine is evidence of her wide knowledge of black history.

Barnett’s debut novel follows Ivoe Williams as she moves from her childhood in rural east Texas in the 1890s, through her schooling, and on to Kansas City where she becomes a pioneering journalist who visits France in 1925.  Her path is one of hard work and achievement.  Her parents and siblings are a vital part of her life and provide other examples of black life in the period.  Also critical for Iona is her former teacher and lover, Ona, who helps her fulfill her dreams.

Jam on the Vine is full of incidents revealing just how many ways African Americans suffered in the rural south and as they migrated to the urban north.  But these incidents tend to squeeze out attention to plot, character development, and polished writing.  Issues are raised but not followed through destroying any unity in the book.  More problematic, the line between fact and fiction blurs, leaving readers unsure what truly reflects the time and place discussed.

While most of us know enough black history to trust that the devastation of African American life is accurate, other parts of the books are highly improbable.  I was disturbed by the claims that Ivoe was descended from African Muslims.  Barnett claims that “Arab African slaves” arrived in Texas in 1859. In fact, such slaves would have been illegal since Congress had ended the legal importation of slaves in 1808.  While Muslim African slaves had been brought to the United States in the 1600s and 1700s, the term “Arab Africans” makes no sense.  Barnett also claims that the owners of this group of slaves killed 28 of the men because they didn’t speak English.  It is improbable that any slave owner would kill so many valuable possessions.  After observing the questionable claims at the start of the book, I read it with skepticism, finding other  statements that were less glaring but also unlikely. I found it hard to image any girls’ school teaching typesetting, or that Caddo children would have attended school with black Texans.  And why did Barnett change the name of the proud Kansas City black baseball team from the Monarchs to the Butterflies?  None of the improbabilities that I observed were critical to the book, but writers of historical fiction need to keep their fiction within believable bonds.  Barnett did include an author’s notes at the end of the book, but she needed to enlarge her effort to explain the factual base of her stories.

I do not recommend this book to other readers.  Its flaws outnumber its merits.



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