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.

The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams*****

TheManWhoCriedIAmThe Man Who Cried I Am was originally published during the turmoil of the late 1960’s, in the throes of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and following the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, Martin Luther King Junior, and Malcolm X. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a long-overdue second civil rights movement, and this title is published again. We can read it digitally thanks to Open Road Integrated Media. I was invited to read it by them and the fine people at Net Galley. I read it free in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase now.

The story is a fictionalized account of the life of writer Richard Wright, one of the giants within African-American literature. I am ashamed to say that although I did pick up a copy of both Native Son and Black Boy, his two most famous books, they were still perched on my to-read pile when this invitation rolled in. I found myself perusing this meaty material without knowing anything about Wright himself, apart from his legendary stature and his occupation. I wanted to be able to give my readers a strong critical analysis of this novel, but I have really struggled with it. I found myself having to do a Wiki search in order to figure out whether Max Reddick or Harry Ames was supposed to be Wright. It’s embarrassing. I will read it over again and try to publish something more useful than this review in the future, but I promised to publish my thoughts on the book no later than today—a week following its release—and so I’m going to tell you what I can.

As literary fiction, it’s strong. Ames, who is Wright, as it turns out, and Reddick, who is James Baldwin fictionalized, go on an Odyssey all their own, leaving the USA and its myriad racial issues behind for Europe. A number of other historical luminaries are recognizable in its pages by different names, in addition to those called by their real names, such as Dewy and Truman, and philosopher Camus. The time period spans from post-World War II to the Civil Rights movement.

So many social issues are embraced here that I found myself making far more notes and highlighting more quotes than I can use. The debate unfolds as to how the Communist Party USA treats artists, as opposed to workers, and even touches briefly on the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of a Stalinist agent. Discrimination against African-American (then referred to as Negro) soldiers in the Buffaloes is part of Reddick’s inner narrative. Black Pride had not yet had its day, and Black men often coveted relationships with Caucasian women, partly, as Malcolm X later pointed out, from self-hatred, partly as a social status symbol, and occasionally for the practical material benefits of marrying into, or becoming aligned with, a woman that had access to money. But this was also a double-edged sword, because the women’s movement hadn’t occurred yet either, and women were supposed to stay home and have babies while their men went off to work.

The whole thing is very complicated.

In this time prior to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal for American women, an unwanted pregnancy is dispatched by a doctor who is supposed to be quite good and risk free, but of course, the procedure is not legal, and there are no emergency facilities available. One of the characters loses the woman he loves when she bleeds to death after a back-alley abortion. This is not intended to be the primary focus of the book, but it’s huge to me, and so it stayed with me.

Be aware that there are scores of ugly racist terms, used for the purpose of highlighting racism, as well as sexist terms and references to gay men as the f-word. All references are either there because of the time period in which the story is set or for the purpose of defining the struggle of the Black man in America, but readers have a right to know and to brace themselves. There are descriptions of the atrocities visited upon European Jews during the war, as well as references to their struggle in the USA, primarily New York City; again, there are some ugly terms used.

Should you read this title? Not at the beach. This excellent novel is for the serious student of African-American history and for the history student focused on social justice. It’s more than worth your while, and I will re-read it myself after I have read Wright’s work. Just understand that there are many, many historical references that will make you reach for Google. The story was written during a time when the average reader had most of these things—from clothing styles such as zoot suits and pegged pants, to offhand references to the cigarette jingles that once punctuated our radio and television broadcasts as frequently as Coke and Pepsi do now, to slang terms whose use is either gone or worse, changed to mean something else. For example, if someone is high, they haven’t been using street drugs; they are drunk. None of these things is explained to the reader. We must have them stored in our memories; search for the meanings of unfamiliar references; or attempt to understand the text without knowing them.

I consider this literature to be accessible only to those that read at college level.

Highly recommended for those that take African-American literature and history seriously, and whose reading ability is well above average.

The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, by Ann Weisberger *****

thepersonalhistoryofracheldupreeRachel has married up. She used to be a hired girl working in the kitchen at Mrs. Dupree’s boarding house. Mrs. Dupree was forced into taking in boarders when  she was widowed, but she has done quite nicely for herself. She is among the cream of Chicago’s Negro community, and the women she entertains are light-skinned and at least four generations removed from slavery. Imagine her tremendous dismay when her only son, Isaac, comes home from fighting the Indian wars and announces that he is moving out to the Western territories to stake a claim and become a common farmer. “Rancher,” he reminds her. And if he marries a single woman who has also staked a claim, he will have twice as much land once they marry.

And so he stakes a claim on Rachel’s behalf, and she gets her heart’s desire: she gets to marry that handsome young officer. She becomes Rachel Dupree.

Roll the film forward about 14 years. Rachel is pregnant with her eighth child. The Badlands, “a country so backward and harsh that even Indians didn’t want it”, has had no rain for a long, long time. To get a little water, they have to tie one of their children to a plank and lower her on a rope to the bottom of the well. Liz doesn’t want to do it anymore. She has nightmares. There’s a snake down there, she says.

But their tongues are thick from lack of water. There is grit between their teeth. And they will lose the horses and their only milk cow if they don’t water them.

So at bedtime, Rachel tells her five surviving children to take just one sip of the water Liz brings up.

Are you spellbound, or are you horrified? I confess I was both. I live in the land of water. In Seattle there is moss growing on everyone’s front steps or porch, and if we aren’t careful, it will grow on our fences and our homes! Most of us don’t bother with umbrellas. We’re used to the fine mist that generally falls during the day. Most of the good hard rain falls at night, and it lulls us to sleep better than a lullaby. And yet, we send the kids to school carrying a water bottle anyway, because hydration is so important.

“Only a sip.”

I’m not the only one that doesn’t care for that. Rachel has about had enough of it, too. For one thing, there are no Negro families anywhere nearby. Isaac had told her that plenty of the men with whom he’d been enlisted had filed for homestead claims, but any that may have been nearby have gone on home. They can’t take it here. And actually? The white folk can’t stand it either. Every time someone goes home, Isaac buys their land. Every time there is a spare dollar, it does not go for a coat for the child who’s outgrowing hers; not even for fabric for Rachel to sew some new clothes. Rachel herself has a patched dress and a pair of work boots. What a contrast she makes from the finery she wore on her wedding day! And she is worried about their eldest daughter, Mary, who will be the right age to start dating soon.

The final straw is broken when Isaac buys out yet another departing neighbor–Rachel’s closest friend, too, as luck would have it–and there is no money at all. There is no money for winter provisions, even, and the kitchen garden died when the rain didn’t come. There is nothing, nothing, nothing. And his game plan is to work the gold mine in Lead, South Dakota, which is far enough away that he will be gone all winter, and she and the children will be left with a brand new baby and thousands of miles to ranch unassisted. And no food.

But hey, he believes in her. He’ll go hunting, maybe bag a bear together with his son, and between that and Rachel’s amazing know-how and steely determination, everything will turn out fine!

Not so much.

A strong subplot involves the local American Indian population. Homesteaders who are hungry, thirsty, and have almost nothing but the land on which they live and try to ranch are sometimes resentful of the “reservation Indians”, who have been stripped of their dignity and culture in exchange for free food, rent, and clothing (“free” being a relative term, of course). Isaac was one of the soldiers that subjugated those same Indians; when Rachel is alone on the ranch for days on end and Mrs. Fills the Pipe and her children pass by, Rachel craves company so desperately that she invites them to rest on her porch. She makes the very dead last of her chokeberry tea and serves it to Mrs. Fills the Pipe and her daughter.

“Our water?” said Liz. “You’re giving them our water?”

Liz had a point there; she was the one went down the well to get it. And yet, the good turn, though it upsets Isaac when he hears of it later, is not misplaced, and does not go unrewarded. And eventually Rachel thinks back to the things her hero, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, said in the Negro press (I use the term as the writer does, for historical purposes), she does not regret the gesture, except for the fact that she served them on the front porch when she should have invited them into her precious parlor.

I didn’t read this book as a galley, I got it at the local library. A galley led me to Weisberger, though. I read The Promise a year or two ago and decided that this writer was going on my to-read list. This makes two winners out of the two I have read. And on top of it all, Weisberger is a Caucasian writer (or appears to be; at any rate, she isn’t Black.) This is only the second writer I have encountered that could write a first-person fictional narrative in which she provides the voice of a Black woman, and does it creditably and with great dignity. I bow in awe.

And although I was already sold on the book and its author, the mention of Lead, South Dakota, nearly made me jump out of my skin. That is the tiny town where my late father was born, and its mine (gold but also iron ore) is where my late grandfather contracted the black lung disease that would eventually kill him. For those interested, it is pronounced “leed”. Maybe it’s too embarrassing to admit your home town is named after the mineral it produces, or maybe it’s a positive connotation, like leadership. My only visit there took place when I was a pre-schooler, and I have very few memories of it, all of them related to family rather than place.

Forgive the digression. All told, this is really strong historical fiction. If you want to read something a little different from most of the stuff that’s for sale; if you like stories of the homesteading movement; or if you want a story that features African-Americans in a positive light, this is your book. If you just want a great book to curl up with at night while the spring rains pass, this is your book too.

In short, highly recommended.