Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead*****

Ray Carney has a foot in both worlds, and he isn’t given to thinking too deeply about that. As the son of a badass criminal, he considers that he has turned out quite respectably; yet, when Cousin Freddie occasionally brings a consignment piece of jewelry to his store, he doesn’t ask many questions about its history. Thus begins a slow, steady slide, from being a mostly-straight retailer, to a mostly-crooked fence. But oh, what a glorious story it makes!

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

The first time I read Colson Whitehead was when The Underground Railroad was published five years ago. It was unquestionably a work of genius, but it was also a fair amount of work to read. Then The Nickel Boys came out, and when I finally found a copy, it was well written yet so harsh, and at a difficult time for me personally, that I thanked my lucky stars that it wasn’t a review copy, and I gave myself permission to abandon it. So thus far, my admiration for this author has been tempered by the awareness that I would need to roll up my sleeves, or to brace myself, or both.

Harlem Shuffle contains none of that. It’s told in linear fashion, beginning in the late 1950s and ending in the late 1960s. The writing is first rate, as one might anticipate, but it’s also an unmitigated pleasure to read.

Our protagonist, Carney, has married up. His beautiful wife Elizabeth comes from a family with lighter skin, higher social position, and a good deal more money. Elizabeth loves him, but she has expectations. As his young family grows to include a son and daughter, the pressure increases. But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just about Carney supporting his family:

“If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around. Dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had. The sickness drawing every moment into its service…Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them…His intent was bent but he was mostly straight, deep down.”

Freddie comes to Carney with a plan: he and his confederates intend to rob the Hotel Theresa, which is the pride of Harlem, the place to stay for Negro patrons of breeding and taste. It was almost sacrilege; and yet, it would also be a fantastic take. Would Ray Carney put out some feelers to find out who could move the sorts of valuable baubles that might be found in the hotel safe? Ray tells him of course not. No no no no no. A thousand times no! And then, he commences doing exactly that.

There are several aspects of this tale that make it exceptional. Whitehead resists the amateurish urge to fall back on pop culture of the period, instead imparting the culture and the pressures of the time more subtly. Racism against Negroes (the acceptable term of the time) by Caucasians; racism by light-skinned Negroes against darker ones, such as Carney; cop violence against all of them; the difficulty faced by Harlem merchants that want to carry first-class products but must first persuade snooty Caucasian company representatives; protection rackets endemic to Harlem, run by Negro criminals as well as cops, so that envelopes had to be passed to multiple representatives every month; and a plethora of other obstacles, stewed into the plot seamlessly, never resembling a manifesto. There’s Whitehead’s matchless ability to craft his characters, introducing each with a sketch so resonant that I had to reread them before moving on; highlight them; then go back and read them a third time after I’d finished the book. My favorite secondary character is Pepper, an older thug so terrifying that even the cops wince when they’re near him. And then there are brief shifts in point of view, and again, my favorite of these is Pepper’s.

Carney isn’t a brilliant decision maker, but he is an underdog, and he’s a survivor as well, and both of these things make me cheer him on. I haven’t had so much fun in a long damn time. When events escalate, Carney finds himself rolling a corpse into a fine carpet, and I can only hope that he chose a relatively cheap rug, because otherwise, what a waste! Those that love the genre mustn’t miss this book, filled with everything anyone could ever want in a noir-style crime novel. Do it, do it, do it!

Buses Are a Comin’, by Charles Person and Richard Rooker*****

I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.

It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.

The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.

For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:

“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”

There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.

The Dead Are Arising, by Les Payne*

I haven’t been this disappointed in a long time. From the moment I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I was eager to read it, given that the promotion promises a lot of new information about this courageous man, a powerful advocate for the rights of people of color. When I didn’t receive a galley, I awaited the book’s release, and I went out and bought it. Less than halfway into it, I was absolutely sickened.

For starters, not all new information is important or necessary information. There’s a lot of minutiae here, as well as a fair amount of Black History 101 material, interesting to those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Northern red-lining practices, and so forth, but a real snore for those of us already steeped in these things. But beyond that—and one could argue that these historical basics are necessary inclusions for a lot of readers—Paine goes to a great deal of trouble to destroy Malcolm’s legacy.

Academics do this sometimes, and surely it’s no coincidence that the top three examples that come to mind are all biographies of African-Americans that fought for their rights, and aren’t alive now to object to what is being said about them. (In addition to Malcolm, recent biographies of Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali come to mind, the latter two slandered by two different authors.) Picking through the tiny, often insignificant details of their lives and combing through their speeches and writing, these authors go to great pains to “expose” small details that conflict with one another, or other signs of inconsistency, with the clear implication that the subject was a liar and a fraud.

For shame!  

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I am a grandmother myself, and I can think of important aspects of my life, especially my younger years, for which my own motivations were and are complicated, and if asked about them I am sure I would have given different answers in my twenties, my thirties, and so on. Our own thoughts and motives have a lot of layers. Perhaps we become more insightful later in life, or perhaps our memories are no longer as sharp as we believe them to be. But because we are not famous, or notorious, depending upon points of view, we are unlikely to have some academic interviewing everyone that ever fucking knew us, or combing through every speck of written documentation we leave behind us, searching for all possible details that may bring our integrity and veracity into question.

For me, it matters very little whether Malcolm’s early life was exactly as he told it. It is his ideas, and his courage in expressing them, that made him a legend, and that’s what I look for in his biography. In the 1960s, almost no African-American (or colored, as they preferred to be called during that period,) Civil Rights advocates dared to come right out and say that Black people were not only as good, but in some cases better than Caucasians. And it is Malcolm’s political evolution during the last year of his life, the time when he broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced a working class perspective that included fighters of every race, that galvanizes me. Malcolm raised a powerful voice in opposition to the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, quipping after President Kennedy’s assassination that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

This takedown of an iconic Civil Rights warrior is shabby in every sense. For those interested in Malcolm’s political and social evolution, I recommend the book titled Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Usually, the best way to learn about someone is to see what they themselves had to say. In this case it’s doubly true.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone.

Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim, editor****

Ahem. Yes, I am in fact, over two years late with this review. I can explain.

My dog ate…no, wait. I got a flat tire when…oh. Yeah, that doesn’t work.

So now I have to tell the truth, having failed miserably, as I usually do, at lying. Here it is. About a month after I received the galley to this book, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, national news and social media went into a virtual frenzy discussing cultural appropriation. And I froze. I started examining everything I did through that lens, and I may have gone overboard. I looked at this galley and I thought, I have no right to review this thing. And when I read the introduction anyway, I feel it even more so. Not written with me in mind, was it? Was this the literary equivalent of reading someone else’s mail? And so I did the easy thing, which was to shove it onto the back burner and read something else. Repeatedly.  

Several months later, it occurred to me that nobody would even have to know if I were to sneak it out of my files and just read the article by Jesmyn Ward, which was actually why I had originally requested it. Ward is on my read-anything list. I read it, and I liked it, and then I shuffled it back into the file. No harm done.

This spring, as the world tentatively emerges, one hopeful toe at a time, from the isolation imposed on all of us by the horrific pandemic, I realize what I should have known all along: that anybody can read anything, and form an opinion about it; and that since I was granted the galley, I actually owe a review. I straightened my spine, dusted myself off, and sat down to read it. There was no blinding light or thunder from the heavens. Nothing smote me. I read it, and I lived to tell the tale.

Most of the authors here are new to me; in addition to Ward, I also know Jacqueline Woodson’s work a bit, mostly from my years teaching language arts, when I used her YA book. Everyone here included in this compendium is a strong writer, and they are largely preaching to the choir, since the audience are also bibliophiles. But the common thread, the point they drive home—and rightly so—is the importance of finding literature about girls that look like themselves. They speak of it as empowerment and validation.

Back in the stone age, when this reviewer was enrolled in a teacher education program, we were likewise taught the importance of inclusive literature. It seemed so obvious to me, this obligation teachers surely have to make sure all of their students are represented in the books their students read, or have read to them. I figured it was a no-brainer. But when I arrived at my first teaching position in elementary school, (heaven help me and those children both,) I was shown the supply closet and there were the classroom book sets. The main characters were Caucasian boys; Caucasian boys and girls; fluffy woodland animals, mostly male; and more Caucasian boys. I sadly examined my battered Visa card and drove to the bookstore to order better books. And I was further amazed to learn, later, that my colleagues, all of whom were Caucasian, believed that the school’s book collection was terrific. Their students loved those books, and that included the children of color that made up approximately half of the population there, they told me.

Sure they did.

The essays in Well-Read Black Girl are a much-needed reminder that racism isn’t always overt; sometimes racism is exclusionary, unintentionally so. And what silences young voices, and what teaches children that books, and life in general, are not about them, worse than discovering that they are not important enough to be included in books?

When I moved to secondary education, where I belonged, I visited the book room there, and I found a set of books about African-American boys, but the message inherent was that they are constantly exposed to drugs and gangs, and it will be hard as heck not to be drawn in. And once again, I scratched my head. These Black kids, most of them were from middle class homes, or loving, well supervised working class homes. Drugs? Not so much. And what did these books teach their Caucasian classmates about Black people? I sighed and got back in the car, already apologizing silently to my Visa once more.

This collection of essays is important, not because of any particular brilliance in composition; they are well written, but not memorable for the writing itself. Instead, they are the key to understanding, from primary sources, why Black girls need books that depict Black girls and women in a positive light.

I’ve assigned four stars to this book for general audiences, but for teachers in training, it is five stars. Every teacher training program should include these essays as required reading. We have to read it until we get it right.

Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth****

I was intrigued when I saw this book, and so I checked out the audio version, which the author reads himself, from Seattle Bibliocommons. It is one of a kind.

My first question, upon seeing the premise, is since when the FBI has any interest in busting the Klan or other White Supremacist organizations. Generally they chase activists on the left, and give those on the ultra-right a pat on the head and a cookie. This is addressed in short order, as the author explains it is his own idea. He initiates it when he learns how easy it is to join the Klan, and once he has access, his bosses agree to let him pursue it. And understand this: he is the only Black FBI agent in Colorado, and there is at least a wee bit of pressure on the Feds to increase their diversity just a wee. So for a brief and shining time, Stallworth is permitted to chase this lead.

The way Stallworth is able to join is that his membership interview is a phone call. At this time, there aren’t a lot of Klan members in the Rockies, and they’re spread thin. When the occasion arises for him to show up in person, he sends another agent, then takes over again on phone and through the US mail. (Heaven knows how this would shake out today; this would be difficult on Zoom.)

The memoir is important to write, because just as he is closing in hard on illegal activity that might result in arrests, he is called off by the brass, and he’s ordered to destroy every speck of research and evidence he’s compiled. Without this memoir, nobody would ever know it even happened. What a crock. What a bitter pill. I feel sick for him.

The audio is delivered in a wheezy, laconic narrative that sounds a lot like an old man sitting on his front porch telling the neighbors about his proudest exploits. It works for me.

Highly recommended.

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson*****

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the groundbreaking, bestselling Pulitzer winner, The Warmth of Other Suns, and when I read it, I understood that from then forward, I would read anything Wilkerson published. Here it is, and you must read it. You may want to put on a pair of oven mitts when you do, because it is hot enough to scorch your fingertips; Wilkerson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. It’s been perched in the top ten of every bestseller list since its August release, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

Wilkerson’s thesis is that Black people in the U.S. occupy, and have always occupied, the lowest position within our social and economic ranks; social class is changeable, but caste is fixed. She compares their positions to the Dalit, better known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung of the lowest caste in India, and to Jews during the Holocaust. If this seems like overkill to you, get this book and read it carefully. This writer is relentless when she seeks to prove a point. She documents, documents, and documents again. She turns all the stones, and nothing is left.

Her evidence is organized by eight key commonalities, which she refers to as “Pillars” of caste. These are aspects of society that are unchanging and that define the positions of those born into them. (She recognizes that there are other races in the US that suffer, but places Black people at the bottom of the order, and so this is where her focus is.) The more I read, the more convinced I am. This is not metaphor or hyperbole. These are literal truths, and by the time she is done, I am convinced that the US is guiltier than Germany, because Germany turned it around, whereas the US is still in denial.

The Warmth of Other Suns is absorbing and easy to read, its style near to narrative nonfiction. In contrast, Caste is brutally frank. Though Wilkerson salts her narrative with relatively minor personal vignettes, they don’t make it easier to read; if anything, they make it hurt worse. (The airline attendant that does his level best to send her to the back of the plane, even though she has a first class ticket; the plumber that assumes she is hired help rather than the homeowner; the man attending the conference at which she is to speak that asks her to freshen his drink…)

I find this material so painful that I realize I am avoiding my review copy in favor of gentler reads, and then I know I have to step it up. This is too important; there’s been too much rug-sweeping in this nation already, and we won’t change if we don’t recognize the reality in which we live. I resolve to read one chapter a day. One chapter, and then I can move to more congenial literature. By the time I reach the end notes, I feel as if I have witnessed a natural disaster, a typhoon perhaps, or an immense, life-ruining earthquake. I’ve never run from books about race in the United States, but having the truth condensed and presented as it is here has to change the way we think. African-American readers likely won’t be much surprised, and many may feel vindicated in the resentments that have built over the years. But I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and then forgetting what’s in it.

Black lives matter, my friends. They matter just as much as anyone else’s. If you are more concerned about broken windows than about generation after generation of Americans whose potential has been stunted and whose contributions have been minimized, then you need this book. If you know that what’s been happening to men and women of color in the USA is dead wrong but you have difficulty forming cogent arguments when you talk with others, you need this book. If you speak and read English and you have a pulse, you need this book. What more does it take?  Information is the root of social change. Here it is.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

My Mother’s House, by Francesca Momplaisir***

The year seems to be riddled with novels that are brilliant conceptually, but whose execution falls short of its promise. Such is the case with My Mother’s House. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, and the most interesting character by far is the house itself. The house has had it with its inhabitants, particularly with protagonist Lucien, a man that’s evil and demented from the top of his pointy head down to the toes of his nasty loafers. Think of the worst thing one human being can do to another, and whatever you’ve come up with, Lucien has done it.

Our rotten old man is an immigrant, a resident of a mostly Caribbean neighborhood in Queens, New York. He brought with him the wife—nearly a child-bride—that he had set his cap for early on, for she is a descendant of the Duvalier family that ruled Haiti ruthlessly for decades. Once he has married her and moved her, however, he abuses her in much the same way he does every other female in his life, including the daughters they have together.  

Do I need to tell you there are triggers all over this thing?

The house can’t take it anymore, all of the ugly within its walls. It decides that the only way to get rid of this bastard is to go down with him, and it sets itself ablaze.

One of the three stars is for this aspect of it, the animation of the house. This is where the story begins, with the house’s thoughts and actions, and I sigh contentedly, sure I am in possession of a great novel.

Alas, not so much.

I love a good horror story, but what makes such a story work is when there is an underdog to cheer for, or a victim to be rescued. This is part of Stephen King’s magic; not only does he provide visceral, original bad guys and monsters, but also some ordinary person that sees what is going on and tries to stop it. Whoever his good guy is, he develops the living heck out of them, and I feel as if I would know them on the street.

In contrast, Momplaisir gives me no possible good outcome; the only hope we have comes from the defeat and death of Lucien. That’s not enough to keep me turning the horrible pages of horrible deeds. I don’t just want to see the bad guy lose; I need a good character that might, against impossible odds, win.

Character development is also lacking. Although I learn about Lucien’s early life and the trauma that he’s endured, and which we know is often part of what warps a person, I never see him change internally. He is static all the way through, and since he’s the only important character, apart from the house, I feel cheated. His distinguishing characteristic is the need to count, because “I am nothing unless I count.” So all the way through, we hear him enumerating one thing after another, and to be honest, this device, though original, leaves me cold, and eventually it just becomes redundant. MAD Magazine—the original, from the 1960s and 1970s—would have had a field day here.

Unable to push myself all the way through the text, I seek out an audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and just to top all of it off, I dislike the reader intensely. The over-the-top dramatic voice would work in very small, shocking increments, but instead it is the main voice used, and by the end I just wanted to tell it to shut up. (Full disclosure: I actually did, not that anyone was there to hear it.)

In the end, I am left with a tremendously clever premise, a fantastic book cover, and then a whole lot of nothing.  How dare the publicist or whoever wrote the teaser compare this work to those of Tana French and Jesmyn Ward? For shame!

You can buy this book now, or you can take that same exact amount of money and burn it in the fireplace. Same thing, either way. Or you can do the smart thing, and go find another book by someone else.

Vicksburg, by Donald L. Miller****

4 stars plus. Donald Miller’s treatment of Vicksburg is one of the best I’ve seen to date; it’s clear, easy to read, well documented, and in parts, vastly entertaining. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The siege and battle of Vicksburg was the single most significant event in the American Civil War. When the Union emerged victorious, it seized control of key arteries of commerce, food, and military supplies by capturing access and use of the Mississippi River as well as an important railroad that ran east to west. It liberated vast numbers of slaves, and it dealt a savage blow to the morale of diehard Southerners who believed the city and its fort unassailable. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and it made communication between the two halves slow and difficult. It also sealed President Lincoln’s election and provided him with a second term he might otherwise not have gained. I knew all of these things before I began reading Miller’s work, but I found a tremendous number of details I didn’t know about, and more importantly, I gained a much solider sense of context.

Many prominent works on Vicksburg are also Grant biographies, and that usually suits me fine, because Grant is one of my greatest heroes. However, those that read about Vicksburg solely within that framework lose out on the progress made—and sometimes lost again—by the Union Navy and others. Though I had read James McPherson’s work on the Union Navy, there is a lot more detail provided here by Miller. The rivers that surrounded Vicksburg are confusing as heck, and this played a big role in lengthening the fight, but at the same time, it can also confuse readers. It certainly did me. For example, when those traveling on rivers go “above” a certain point, what does that mean? I always assumed it meant north, but sometimes it doesn’t. I had never heard or read the term “Brown water navy,” (or if I did, I had thoroughly forgotten it), and this is a key aspect of the story. For the first time I have a solid grasp of the route used by the Union navy and army.

Readers should know that Miller is fond of including gore. I don’t know whether this is because college students are easily bored, and the consideration of Grant calmly conveying orders while spattered in brain matter is just more attention-getting than the same information without the gore, or whether Miller feels compelled to use these details to drive home the horror that heroes were forced to look beyond in order to be effective, but there it is, and so if you are inclined to take a book with you on your lunch break, you may want a different one then.

One of the aspects I appreciate most is the emphasis Miller places on the role of slaves during this critical time. If the waters were inscrutable, the land was little better in places, with thick, tropical foliage, snakes, leaches and other hazards. Those that lived nearby had an incalculable advantage, but local whites used this knowledge to confuse and obfuscate troops they considered to be enemies. Slaves, on the other hand, understood how important a Union victory would be, and they provided information that would have taken a lot longer to obtain without them. This is material that other writers often mention briefly but treat as a side issue. Miller goes into specifics, gives concrete examples, and shares the respect that Grant gained for his newly emancipated spies, guides, and soldiers.

The chapter titled “The Entering Wedge” is where good prose and information become solid gold. During this section of the book and the chapter after it, I did a lot of rereading for pleasure. There are excellent quotes throughout the book, and the author wisely focuses on those that are little seen in other books, providing a freshness and you-are-there quality at times that I haven’t seen for a long time.

At one point, during a passage discussing the caves that housed soldiers as well as local families affected by shelling, I realized that these must surely be part of the national park dedicated to this event, and I searched the web for images of them; sadly, because of the very soft earth in and around Vicksburg, (most likely the same soft earth that enabled the river to continuously change course,) those caves are all gone, washed away by hard rain. There’s a photo of a modern version based on the information available, but that’s not the same thing. Rats.

I nearly gave this book five stars, but there’s a surprisingly disturbing part toward the end that left me deflated and scratching my head. There are pages and more pages devoted to ugly rumors that seem to begin and end with Cadwallader. Although the author repeatedly reminds us that these statements are “unsubstantiated” and “controversial,” he nevertheless devotes a whole lot of time and space to them, and what’s more they are near the end, where the reader is most likely to recall them. Overall, he seems harder on Grant than most are, but up to this point he was fair, weighing his weaknesses while acknowledging his strengths. Why he would do a hatchet job on this iconic hero in closing is a mystery to me. Then the very end of the book is given to a Confederate.

Nevertheless, this is a strong work for those that know the basics and want the details. I don’t recommend it to those new to the American Civil War; if you are just getting your feet wet, read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, or explore the excellent historical fiction of Michael and Jeff Shaara, Shelby Foote, and E.L. Doctorow. But for those that are well-versed and in search of new information, I highly recommend this book.