The premise sounds exciting: a cabinet consisting of African-American luminaries that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as the best president the U.S. has ever had; well, as far as white folks went, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if he had Black advisors, even if it was kept away from the public eye?
It would have been cool, except mostly, he didn’t. Not really.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now; in fact, it’s been for sale for a long time. I’m very late with this review, because I was very late finishing the book, because it depressed me so deeply that I couldn’t face it.
Watts is a fine writer and has done the research. The issue for me is that this cabinet, which consisted of outstanding academics and other highly respected Black professionals, had incredibly little clout. They were kept secret. They were unofficial. And it sounds as though FDR tolerated them more than he appreciated them. Despite all of their labor and their eloquence, the New Deal left people of color standing in the rain without an umbrella.
The 1930s were a dreadful time for African-Americans, to be sure. The Jim Crow stranglehold on the South, along with less formal, mostly uncodified discrimination in the North, made it more or less impossible for most bright young Black men to make any headway in their chosen professions, apart from within the Black community (and for Black women? Fuhgeddaboudit.) So, it made my heart sing to learn that there was this exceptional group that advised FDR; but actually, they got crumbs off the president’s table. It makes me a little bit ill to see that this huge study turned up so very little.
Kim Michele Richardson broke new ground in 2019 with her blockbuster novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, which features an oppressed minority in Appalachia. In the early years of the 1900s, and possibly before, tucked into the hills and hollers of rural Kentucky were a small number of people that had blue skin. This first novel featured Cussy Mary Carter, a Blue woman that worked as a pack horse librarian as part of the WPA, a new government agency created by the FDR administration. In this sequel, it is her daughter, Honey Mary Angeline Lovett that joins this organization and in doing so, struggles toward emancipation when her parents are jailed for violating the miscegenation laws existing at the time.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks for the review copy.
When her parents are jailed for having intermarried—with “Blues” considered colored—Honey Lovett is sent to live with Retta, an elderly woman that has been like a grandmother to Honey. Returning to the area where she was born, Honey—who is also Blue, but only on her feet and hands, particularly when she is distressed—collides with many of the same biases and legal obstacles that her mother faced.
This sequel features more women that occupy nontraditional occupations; in her notes, Richardson says that she wanted to “explore themes of sisterhood.” The sentiment is a welcome one to this feminist Boomer; at the same time, it’s important to recognize that until the outbreak of the second world war, women seldom occupied positions with the government (our protagonist, plus her friend Pearl, who works for the Forestry Department as a fire lookout,) and as miners (another woman friend, who is harassed relentlessly.) For there to be three such women inside such a sparsely populated area would have been unusual. That said, I like the character of Pearl a lot, and providing Honey with a friend and peer gives the author more opportunities to flesh out her protagonist.
The novel’s greatest strengths are in the research behind it, the concept—informing readers about the existence and victimization of the Blues—and in the general setting of the time and place. Richardson knows her field.
Once again, I enjoy the return of Junia, the mule that I confess was my favorite character in the last book, as well as Tommy the Rooster, who is new. Another strength is that Honey is depicted in a more even and credible fashion than Cussy Mary, who was too saintly to be entirely believable.
However, I would still like to see some nuance in characters. There is a wide cast of characters here, but every single one is either a good guy—one that never does anything wrong—or a bad guy that never does anything good. This is a failing that would take the novel down, in my eyes, if not for the fact that Richardson has pioneered this particular time, setting, and topic. Even when a novel is primarily driven by setting, as this one is, the main characters need to be rounded out.
“It’s the admirals, sir, playing with us like this is their own big-assed bathtub and we’re just toys.”
Jeff Shaara has written some of the best war stories ever published, and he’s done so for almost 25 years. I have read every last one of them. When I was invited to read and review his new novel about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, I was delighted, but also slightly apprehensive, because even after all these years, the subject remains an incendiary one; I needn’t have worried. This may be Shaara’s best book, and that’s saying a lot.
I’ll share a brief note about my own biases going in. My father was among the last men called to serve during World War II; he never left the U.S., however, where he was tasked with training new recruits to the still-new U.S. Air Force. But I grew up hearing about Japanese atrocities, and many of the bizarre stereotypes and misconceptions based on pseudoscience were told to me as fact. When as an adult I announced that I was about to marry a Japanese citizen, I sounded the waters with my family to see if there was resistance. I was told that my parents “still remember Pearl Harbor.” Meanwhile, my husband’s father also served during World War II—in the Japanese army. The topic was never raised by his parents around me, or at all as far as I know; but I asked my spouse a few questions to help me understand the Japanese perspective about this horrific conflict, and then I understood exactly how erroneous most of what I’d been raised to believe actually was.
So I was primed to read this book, and also a little afraid of what I might find. My internal map of Pearl Harbor was studded with emotional landmines, and at the book’s conclusion, none of them had been tripped.
Shaara tells this story primarily through the eyes of three people: Cordell Hull, U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese architect of the invasion; and Tommy Biggs, a 19-year-old naval recruit from an impoverished Caucasian family in rural Florida.
Shaara faithfully incorporates a character from the rank and file in every story; he does this even if there is nobody on record that he can report on, and so often, he is forced to create a fictional character based on experiences and characteristics from several people. When I saw no such disclaimer in any of his notes, I grew curious and wrote and asked him whether this is the case with Biggs. He replied that this time there is a Tommy Biggs (though the name is not the same), but that he did add the experiences of others in order to flesh him out. So this time, each of the three chief characters is based on an historical figure.
I learned a great deal. Though it’s well known that this attack profoundly crippled the U.S. Navy, sinking or badly damaging most of the fleet, I had never considered it from the Japanese perspective. Looked at in that way, it was not only audacious, it was immaculately planned and wildly successful. I also had never considered what a blunder it was on the part of the U.S. military to leave its equipment, ships, planes, and more so unguarded. In the fallout after the attack, we learn that the Navy considered security to be the job of the U.S. Army and vice-versa. What a colossal bungle.
Japan had emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, and its leadership was suffused with overwhelming confidence. Japanese racial superiority would lead to Japanese dominance throughout the China, Indochina, and across all of Asia, they claimed, because they were meant to dominate their portion of the globe. Japanese leaders were convinced that the U.S. would not seek retribution following an attack on its soil because American isolationist sentiment was so strong. They genuinely hoped that this attack would result in an end of the U.S. embargo that crippled Japan, and which existed in order to halt Japanese expansion and force Japan to withdraw from its alliance with the Axis powers. Americans, the Japanese brass told one another, were too big, too slow, too lazy to retaliate. There were voices of dissent, however:
“For any of you who believe the Americans are not worthy of a fight, that they do not have the stomach for blood, perhaps you are familiar with the American Civil War? In the 1860s, they divided and fought each other in the bloodiest war in their history. They did not require any enemy to inspire them. They fought each other. Are you familiar with football?”
Meanwhile the U.S. military, press and popular culture treated the Japanese as a bad joke. One myth dressed up as science suggested that Japan would never be able to build an air force because of an inherent defect in the inner ear of all Japanese. It was physically impossible for them to become pilots! The condescension was rife, everywhere one turned. Hollywood depicted the Japanese as ridiculous, rodent-like creatures with minds that didn’t function properly. The Chicago Tribune stated that for Japan to attack the U.S. was “a military impossibility.” Japanese were said to be too myopic to be effective against a military target. And it goes on.
There’s all sorts of blame to spread around. Nobody in Washington, D.C. had told the top brass at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short, about the project named Magic, which intercepted and broke Japanese code. They had no idea that Japan was rattling its sabers to such a degree. And these two men appear to have been lazy, bureaucratic fools that ignored what little intelligence came their way. For example, shortly before the attack, the man on watch sees a Japanese sub in the water. Kimmel immediately assumes that the guard has seen a whale, and he goes back to bed.
There are three aspects of this novel that keep the pages turning for me. The first, of course, is my interest in military history. Shaara’s research is meticulous. The book is historical fiction at its best, which is when the contours of the story, even fairly detailed aspects of it, are correct, but the fictional genre is chosen so that dialogue and inner monologue can be added. Second is Shaara’s perceptive nature, and it’s this that permits him to choose the best details to include and cut what is inessential so that pacing never flags. And finally, his capacity to develop a character so that we feel we know him is matchless; in particular I bond to poor Tommy Biggs, a guy that can’t catch a break, until he can.
Nothing I can say will serve as well as what Shaara says himself. Get this book, even if you have to pony up full cover price. This is hands down the best fictional representation of Pearl Harbor on sale today. Believe it.
Cussy Mary Carter delivers books to the rural poor folk of
Troublesome Creek, Kentucky during the Great Depression. I read this quixotic
tale free and early, thanks to Sourcebooks and Net Galley; it’s available for
Cussy is the daughter of a miner; her mother is dead, and
her father is dying slowly of Black Lung, known to them locally as “the miner’s
sickness.” She has no siblings. The government pays her to follow every possible
winding path to reach out-of-the-way homes, loaning books, magazines, and the
scrapbooks assembled of odds and ends by the librarians themselves. It provides
a bright spot in an otherwise grim little town.
I like Cussy Mary, but I have to admit that I am more
attached to Junia, her mule—and if you read this book, you’ll see why.
Everything Cussy does is fraught with peril, and though I seldom do this, I
cheat and look ahead because although I can tolerate any fate for the human
characters here, I need to know whether anything will happen to Junia. Junia
serves as Cussy’s transportation, watchdog (watch mule?) and best friend.
Ordinarily I am no more attached to hoofed animals than any other city dweller,
but this plucky critter has me at hello.
One of the best single moments in historical fiction occurs
when Cussy Mary is confronted by a rattlesnake on a path. A shot rings out, and
a neighbor woman steps out of the trees holding a gun and yells, “Back. That’s
The story’s greatest strengths all have to do with setting and historical detail. Cussy Mary and her father are among a relatively rare racial group that no longer exists, people possessed of blueberry-blue skin. They were often shunned by those they lived among, some of whom regarded them as “colored” (as did local law), and others of whom feared they carried a curse. I had never known about the “blues” before reading this novel, and this is historical fiction at its best, that which educates us and makes us like it.
I would have liked to see more subtlety and ambiguity in the
development of Cussy Mary and the lesser characters. Everyone here is either a
good person or a bad one. Richardson’s good people never have bad moments or
vice versa. I understand when Cussy Mary turns down offers of food even though
she is hungry; part of it is the pride that is an inherent part of the culture,
and she also fears that those making the offer may be giving up their only food
of the day. I understand this the first time she tells us, and the second, and
the third…but by the time I see it again (and again, and..) I am rolling my eyes
and wishing fervently that once, just once she will say thank you and scarf
down the biscuit, or the apple, or the whatever. On the rare occasion she
accepts food, she takes it to someone else, and then she goes home and eats
thistles. It makes it difficult to believe her character, because nobody is
that saintly every minute of every day.
Nonetheless, I recommend this book to you, because there’s
nothing else like it. If there were a body of fictional literature widely
available regarding this time, place, and its people, I might say differently,
but as far I can see, this is it, and the setting is strong enough to just
about stand on its own. Those that enjoy the genre will want this book.
“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”
I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.
“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”
I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”
A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This novel is now for sale.
Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.
And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.
Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison. Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:
“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”
I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself. It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.