Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha*****

The quality that distinguishes Cha from other top-tier mystery writers is her absolute fearlessness in using fiction to address ticklish political issues.  Your House Will Pay is impressive. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins. I am a little sick at heart that I’m so late with my review, but this book is rightfully getting a lot of conversations started without me. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

Our two protagonists are Grace Park and Shawn Matthews. They don’t know each other, but their families intersected one critical day many years ago.  The Parks are Korean immigrants, the owners of a small pharmacy.  The Matthews family is African-American, and they have never stopped grieving the loss of sixteen-year-old Ava, who was shot and killed one evening by Grace’s mother in a moment of rage and panic. The other thing shared by Grace and Shawn is that both were quite young when it happened. Shawn was with his older sister when she was killed and has memories of what happened; Grace has been shielded from the event and knows nothing about it until the past opens itself up in a way that is shocking and very public.

The story alternates between the initial event, which happened in the 1990s, and today; it also alternates between the Park family and the Matthews’.  The development of the characters—primarily Grace and Shawn, but also Shawn’s brother, Ray and a handful of other side characters—is stellar. Throughout the story I watch for the moment when the narrative will bend, when we will see which of these two scarred, bitter families is more in the right, or has the more valid grievance. It never happens. Cha plays it straight down the middle. Both families have been through hell; both have made serious mistakes, crimes against one another. And ultimately they share one more terrible attribute: both families have been callously under-served by the cops and local government, for which relatively poor, powerless, nonwhite families are the dead last priority.

Cha bases her story on a real event, and she explains this in the author’s notes at the end of the book.

As a reviewer, I am closer to this than many will be: my family is a blend of Caucasians, Asian immigrants, and African-Americans. I read multiple galleys at a time, shifting from one to another throughout the reading parts of my day, but it is this story that I thought about when I wasn’t reading anything.

The first book that I read by this author was from her detective series. When I saw that she had a galley up for review, I was initially disappointed that this wasn’t a Juniper Song mystery, but now that I have seen what Cha is doing and where she is going with it, I see that this had to be a stand-alone novel. There isn’t one thing about it that I would change.Highly recommended to those that love the genre and that cherish civil rights in the U.S.; a must-read.

Best Debut Fiction of 2019: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis

Interestingly, my favorite as well as two honorable mentions share a social justice component.

Honorable Mentions:

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2019/04/13/miracle-creek-by-angie-kim/

Best Poetry 2019: A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, by Damaris B. Hill*****

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The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen*****

This is the RBG book I’ve been waiting for. My huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers for the review copy. This book will be publicly available November 5, 2019.

Justice Ginsburg wants us to know that the sky is not falling. Though progressive thinkers see great cause for concern, primarily within the executive branch of the federal government, the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court, she insists, is made up entirely of strong legal minds that revere it. Precedents are still the basis of future rulings; the overturn of precedent is rare and unusual. But for activists—and she loves us—she also points out that public opinion is what alters the course of the law. Congress makes laws based on what their constituency desires. So she isn’t suggesting we put away our pussy hats and our picket signs; she just wants us to know that our advocacy works, and she appreciates everything we do to further women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

Twice previously I read other books about RBG; one is a popular biography that I enjoyed, but that didn’t go deeply enough into Ginsburg’s legal ideas, and the second is just dross, minutiae gathered from her high school year book and whatnot. Whereas part of me just wants her to write an autobiography, I have to recognize that she is very elderly, has faced health challenges lately, and to stand a chance of writing any sort of memoir, she’d probably have to resign from the Court. And goodness knows, I want her to stay there, ideally forever. Instead, Rosen’s series of interviews with this feminist icon serves nicely.

Rosen has been friends with Justice Ginsberg for many years; they were drawn together initially through elevator discussions of opera. His chapters are brief but meaty, organized around key rulings and topical interviews. Rosen explains succinctly at the outset how this friendship formed and grew, but he doesn’t get windy or use the opportunity to aggrandize himself. He keeps the focus strictly on his subject. The interviews flow in an agreeable manner that is literate without being verbose or Byzantine.

We live in politically polarized times, and so even when I am reading about a political figure that I admire, I generally expect my blood pressure to rise a little, perhaps in passionate agreement. But if anyone in this nation has the long view of history and the key domestic issues that have unfolded, particularly with regard to the rights of women, it is RBG. And although I am not as senior a citizen as Justice Ginsburg, many of the changes she mentions that have occurred over the decades are ones that I can also attest to, though I hadn’t thought of them in years. For example, when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still not unusual to try to enter a bar or club only to be barred at the doorway because women weren’t allowed inside. (“Gentlemen only, Ma’am. Sorry.”) I had forgotten about these things; as her recollections unspool I see that she is right. Change happens, but lasting change happens slowly. We are getting there, at least with regard to women’s rights and gay rights. Issues of race and class are something else entirely, and she points up specific instances where justice has not progressed and change is imperative. I could say more, but none of it would be as wise or as articulate as when Ginsburg says it. If you’ve read this far in my review, you should go ahead and order this excellent book now. I highly recommend it to all that are interested in social justice, both formal and informal.

Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke*****

Attica Locke is a force to be reckoned with and the first mystery in the Highway 59 series, Bluebird, Bluebird was outstanding, so I jumped when I saw this, the second in the series available to review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mulholland Books for the review copy. It will be available to the public Tuesday, September 17, 2019.

Darren Mathewsis a Black Texas Ranger, and his work is to unmask and prosecute members of the sinister Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. When the story opens we see that our protagonist is still drinking; he and his wife Lisa, who were estranged during the last book, have reached a détente of sorts. He will still drink, but it will be civilized consumption in front of his wife. A glass of beer. There. See, was that so bad? He has it handled. In exchange, he agrees to bring his work off the road, and so he is assigned to a supervisory position directing other officers in pursuit of the ABT. He doesn’t want to drive a desk, but it’s a concession he makes for her.

But Darren has gotten himself into an awkward spot, a compromising one. His mother—a woman that did not raise him but with whom he has recently developed a relationship of sorts—says it’s a shame that nobody has found the .38 used to kill Ronnie Malvo. Mack, who is dear to Darren, is a suspect in that homicide, and his mother has the gun. He tells himself that his frequent contact with her is a sign that they have a closer relationship and that the money and gifts he brings her are a pleasure for him to provide. But it’s not true; actually, his mother is blackmailing him.

And before you know it, he’s drinking hard, anywhere and everywhere that Lisa can’t see it.

Everyone that reads a lot of fiction in general or mysteries in particular develops a mental list of things they are tired of seeing. I for one could die happy if I never saw another alcoholic protagonist; I am also weary of seeing mean mothers. Why does every author have to take a pot shot at motherhood? But for every item on my list, there’s an exceptional writer that gets a pass because their prose is so solid, their voice so clear and resonant, their pacing so flawless, their characters so credible. Locke is one of those writers. (And to be fair, there are other features on my no-no list that Locke avoids nicely.)

So there’s the iffy marriage; there’s the bottle; there’s the blackmailing mama. But that’s not the half of it. Darren is sent into the field, despite his protests and his promise to Lisa, because there’s a missing child–the child of a member of the ABT– who has last been seen in a historically Black community, and the Rangers need a Black lawman to ease the way of the investigation. The Rangers don’t have a lot of Black officers to call out.

So next thing we know Darren is out in the boondocks, serving as a companion officer to a Caucasian sheriff that doesn’t really want much to do with Darren. In fact, the local power brokers, all of them white, are visibly uncomfortable in his presence, particularly when he enters private homes. And he knows that information is being withheld from him, not only by these people but also by Leroy Page, an elderly African-American man that was the last one to see Levi alive.

Locke is noteworthy for the way she creates a sense of disorientation, a murk that starts with the setting—swampy, dark, wet—and extends into the characters that withhold information and make remarks that are both overly general but also sometimes loaded with double meaning that he can’t decode. And into all of this mess comes his best friend Greg,  a Caucasian FBI man that has been sent in to explore the possibility of a hate crime here.

Part of Locke’s magic is her perceptive nature and the way she segues political events into the storyline. And so the pages fairly vibrate with betrayal when Greg, who knows from Darren that Leroy has not been forthcoming and won’t permit a warrantless search of his home, says that Leroy is guilty of a hate crime. The current administration takes a low view of such matters, Greg points out, and after all, Leroy referred to him as the “HCIC; Head Cracker In Charge.” Darren takes exception:

Cracker and nigger are not the same, and you know it,” Darren said.

“If we don’t prosecute hate crimes against whites—if that’s what this is,” Greg said, just to get Darren to hear him out, “if we don’t prosecute crimes against white lives to the degree that we do those against black lives—“ 

Darren laughed so hard the bourbon nearly choked him.

“They need to see the FBI taking every hate crime seriously.”

“So this is the Jackie Robinson of federal hate crime cases?”

It’s preposterous, of course. For one thing, as Darren points out, there’s no body. The child may be alive. But he is shaken by his friend’s behavior, and when Lisa drives out to visit on her day off, Darren is further concerned by how intimately she and Greg regard one another. It’s one more thing he doesn’t need, and at this point he has nobody left, apart from his very elderly uncle, who tells him the truth and isn’t hiding anything.  He does his best to help Leroy, but Leroy doesn’t trust him and is also not telling him everything, and he’s forced to recognize that this elderly man that reminds him of his uncles and Mack is, after all, another stranger.

Meanwhile, Darren makes a decision that knocks up against the ethics that his upbringing and his profession demand.

The tension builds and there’s no putting this book down. I stayed up late because I couldn’t sleep until I knew the outcome, which I did not see coming.

Locke is brilliant and seems to me like a shoo-in for a Grand Masters Award. This book and the one before it are highly recommended.

The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell*****

Annie Clements is a badass union warrior, nearly six feet tall with fiery red hair and a voice that carries.  When the men that work the Quincy mine strike for better wages, an eight hour day, and an end to the treacherous one man drill, Big Annie leads the women’s auxiliary, and her role makes headlines around the world. This magnificent novel, which holds closely to events as they unfurled, came to me free and early, thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s for sale right now.

The Quincy mine is owned by Calumet and Hecla, and it is one of the deepest underground—and therefore one of the most dangerous—in the US.  It’s on the upper peninsula of Michigan, an isolated location closer to Canada than to other states or even the rest of Michigan; the winters are fierce. The only thing crueler than winter there is the heart of the general manager, James McNaughton, a vicious, vindictive man, who vows that “Grass will grow in the streets of Calumet before C&H recognizes the Western Federation of Miners.”

Charlie Miller is our union organizer, traveling from camp to camp, gathering support from working families. He intends to attack the smaller, more outlying mining companies first and save the huge, wealthy ones like Calumet for after inroads have been made around them. But miners are angry about the one man drill, a recent change that saves the company on wages, but leaves a single miner at risk of being injured or buried without a second miner present to help get him out of there. The company won’t send workers in after the injured, so working in pairs is a critical part of what little safety exists. Too many have gone home dead or maimed, and emotion is high. The women’s auxiliary organizes the wives and other family members of miners, and the women are rising up as well. Miller doesn’t see a strike as winnable right now, but if the union doesn’t get behind them soon, it may well become a wild cat strike, one in which the workers strike without union backing; that would embarrass the WFM.

Russell combines beautifully woven prose with careful attention to historical detail; not much has been changed here, but in her end notes she explains what has been altered and why. Where possible she uses direct quotes, and this is above and beyond what most novelists will do.

Although the story is about Big Annie Clements, my favorite part is when Mother Jones comes to Calumet. (Those interested in labor history should also read Mother Jones’s autobiography, which is shorter and better than what any biographer has done for her.)

This is the first time I have read Russell’s work, but it won’t be the last. A measure of how much I love a book can be found in how much I read, quote, and carry on about it right here at home. My husband could scarcely enter a room without my demanding whether we have any other materials about the copper strikers, and does he know about (this, that, the other thing)? I was reading ten different books, but he was hearing about only one of them. My own grandfather was a miner and died of Black Lung many years ago, but I felt him beside me as I read; I find myself hungry for pasties, the recipe preserved from my Finnish great aunt. But I digress.

Finally, readers should also know that this is a tragic read, positively miserable in places. There are dead and dying children, and the ending isn’t heartwarming. Yet it contains elements—an unlikely romance, and in James McNaughton, a villain of monstrous proportions—that could not be written into a purely fictional tale because nobody would believe them; and yet, these are aspects that stick closely to historical reality.

For those that love excellent historical fiction, this is a must read. For those that love both historical fiction and labor history, it provides the sweetest of crossroads. Highly recommended.

When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.