The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.

The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke*****

thetinroofblowSometimes people say they “ran across” a book, and that is close to how I came to read James Lee Burke for the first time. I had been tidying up for company, and my daughter had selected this book from the “free” pile at school, then decided she didn’t want it. She is a teenager, so instead of finding our charity box and putting it there, she dropped it on the upstairs banister. I scooped it up in irritation..then looked at it again. Flipped it over…read the blurb about the writer. This man is a rare winner of TWO Edgars. Really? I examined the title again; I hadn’t read any novels based on Hurricane Katrina, so why not give it a shot?

There are about a dozen writers whose novels I will read just because they wrote them. This man is now one of them. I appreciated his ability to develop characters, deal respectfully but realistically with the tragedy and travesty that was Hurricane Katrina (followed by Rita) and recognize it as such; and keep about a million plot threads going without ever dropping anything. In fact, the complexity of the character line-up–somewhere between a dozen and fifteen important people to remember, when I was on the verge of falling asleep for the night–gave me pause, but then this is #6 in a series, so it is possible that if I’d begun with #1, some of them would have been old friends by now, with just a few new ones introduced (and some disposed of before the story was over).

The setting was entirely unfamiliar to me; I have never spent time in the deep southern part of the USA, unless you count a trip with my family to Disney World, and have never set foot in Louisiana. Burke knew it well enough for both of us. His word work was sufficient to lay the canvas before me,and the devastation that was visited upon those who had previously been poor but stable was laid bare:

“They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and in nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.”

He gave due credit to those who, in an official capacity or otherwise, worked tirelessly for up to 72 hours on end to save the lives of the vulnerable who had been unable to get out in time, or whose parents had made the wrong choice for them. But he also tells the truth about the condition of the levee that was supposed to protect the residents of New Orleans, and how it had been permitted to deteriorate, when Federal funds were dropped by 50% without a moment’s notice or explanation, and permitted to deteriorate worst in the Black part of town. The narration spills out with disgust the “latent racism…that was already beginning to rear its head.”

Meanwhile, our hero, cop Dave Robicheaux, is trying to find out the whereabouts of a “junkie priest” who perished trying to evacuate his parishioners, but died in the flood waters when criminals stole his boat. He also keeps track of his best friend Clete, a bail bondsman and private detective who will follow him around if he is not included in the search, because some of the people Robicheaux is trying to locate are also bail skippers, and therefore also his bread and butter. Clete is an alcoholic and makes some really bad decisions; Robicheaux tirelessly tries to keep him under his wing and under control, all the while also trying to keep his wife and daughter safe from a local mercenary he’s investigating. The bad guy knows that Robicheaux’s family is his greatest treasure, and threatens them as an attempt to make him back off.

While parts of New Orleans appear untouched by Katrina, others have had their entire infrastructures destroyed, and there are virtually no navigable roads; the waters are treacherous as well, with downed power lines and debris just below the surface. In short, he has his work cut out for him.

Burke’s bad guys are complicated characters. All come from hideous family situations, and childhood has left its unalterable mark on them, but they are layered in the depths to which they will stoop in seeking wealth, power, or simply revenge. One is capable of property crime, violence, even rape, but finds he cannot look an unarmed man in the eye and shoot him; another can do it without a hitch in his heartbeat. The street smart voices I heard within these chapters felt real to me.

But the consistent thread which lies at the core of the story, of the storm, of everything that takes place between its covers, is one which the writer has hold of like a pit bull with a rat. He has his jaws around it and shakes it without ever letting loose of it, whatever other events weave in and out of his pages, the racism that caused the most harm to be brought upon those with the fewest resources, intentionally and maliciously. He will not let go of the racism that rules New Orleans.

“The original sympathy for the evacuees from New Orleans was incurring a strange  transformation. Right wing talk shows abounded with callers viscerally enraged at the fact evacuees were receiving a onetime two-thousand-dollar payment to help them buy food and find lodging. The old southern nemesis was back,naked and raw and dripping–absolute hatred for the poorest of the poor.”

I can see why this guy has a pair of Edgars to bookend his mantel. He spins a compelling, absorbing tale, and the values and priorities that lay at the core of his work are ones I share and appreciate. It was in reading this novel that I became a die-hard James Lee Burke fan. I wrote this review before I had a blog on which to put it, and this book is a must-read for those that love good fiction, good mysteries, or that care about social justice.