Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A powerful historical fiction debut! Part I--Little Tunis

Jam on the Vine by 
One of the best historical fiction novels I've read!
This is an amazing story of brave people, but especially brave young black females at a time when prejudice and discrimination were not only overlooked, but actually condoned.
I find it unbelievable that this is Ms. Barnett's first novel! 
I predict Ms. Barnett has a great future ahead as a writer! 
And I love love love this cover image! 
This book not only contains historically accurate information, but is a work of art in characterization, relationships, and atmosphere. It is so very much more than the story of the founding of the first female-run African American newspaper, Jam on the Vine. So very much more...

After May-Belle, Papa, and them, Ivoe loved books best. Books were a friend to anyone who opened them. Blowing a whirligig to make the sails go 'round or talking up a storm to a corn-husk doll was all right for passing the time, but you never went anywhere new or met anyone special like you did in the pages of a book. (4)
Yes, books hold no prejudice! :) They are open to anyone's interpretation! As a child it was damn near impossible for Ivoe to obtain books, or any other printed material, to read. 

  "Momma, it's so hot the cows not mooing and the chickens not clucking," Ivoe said, 
  wanting to melt the worry that made her mother hard as tack candy. (9)
That! That is language that literally transports a reader to another time and location! 

Ennis, Ivoe's father, who is a metalsmith, muses to himself as the skin on his arm blisters from an accidental burn:
  In the race between what he could give his family and what they needed, need always 
won. Truth like that stared you down. More than hurt you, it numbed you--even to a 
hungry flame. (24)
I could feel Ennis' pain with these words...pain and despair...but so much deeper than just the physical body, into his own psyche, his soul, any self-confidence he had...

James, a colored man who had made good with his own lumber business, establishing it in the same locale as the 'white' lumber business and moving his family, though Ennis and others tried to warn him about encroaching upon the whites in their own territory, both James and his son were beaten and then shot to death. Lemon, Ivoe's momma, talks with Ennis afterward:
  And you wonder why I don't want you building me nothing. What I want a little shack 
for? Or even a stand? White folks ain't ready to see colored folk have nothing of they 
own. No, sir. I'll keep right on selling my jams from my kitchen 'cause soon as they see 
you doing all right--doing for yours like they do for theirs--they go and do something 
like this. Opening a business is one thing, but to leave Little Tunis? You know, Ennis, I 
believe if James had kept his family down here he would still be with us. That was 
mistake number one--leaving Little Tunis.
  "Naw, mistake number one was being born colored." (36)
And this is what stabs me through the heart every time--some must sacrifice themselves in order to initiate social change. Why? Why must it be death and destruction that only grabs the attention of those who are so prejudiced? *Shakin' my head...*

Then the KKK burn down the colored schoolhouse:
  Ivoe listened with her classmates before a heap of charred wood. She tried to understand, but like jamming the wrong puzzle piece into an almost-finished puzzle, she couldn't make the picture in her mind fit with Miss Stokes's words. Why would anyone want to burn down a schoolhouse whose benches left your behind full of splinters and none of the inkwells ever saw a drop of ink? (36-37)
Isn't that the truth? Though Miss Stokes loses no time in campaigning for help to reestablish a school, realizing that students will be lost without it...such a smart women, quite foresighted. 
  "Those not in trouble are in the fields. Parents are starting to depend on the bit of money the little ones bring in. I mean to get the night school running as soon as I can before I lose them all to sharecropping." (41)
Seems unreal to me that you had to worry about children being put to work! But it was true! Hence the passage of child labor laws. 

There is so much to this book I feel as if I could write five blog posts discussing it! And I'm sure the material is there for at least that much! I will try to condense... Although I have already decided this is Part 1 of 2 posts for the complete review! 

As a youngster, Ivoe wins a trip to Austin with a letter she addressed to the President of the United States and thus began her devotion to writing and led to her career as a journalist. She always had teachers who worked hard at developing her talents: Miss Stokes in Little Tunis and Ona at Willetson. It is so often teachers who help encourage children to develop their talents! 

Additionally, this book bore out to me in a large way the immense diversity among U.S.-bound immigrants. For some reason, and probably just due to my own ignorance and limited scope of travel, I rarely consider that Muslims were an active immigrant population throughout this country's history, just as were any other "group" of people. And Ivoe's mother, Lemon, is a Muslim, married to a black East Texan. Diversity is the underpinning of this book and much of what makes it so compelling. 

"Sometimes it takes generations for opportunity to come, but if you keep on living, it will show up." (69)
Lemon's summary of 40 years of freedom and the story of Stark moving immigrants in and allowing them to die, be killed, etc. She was listing everything for which she had to be grateful at the time. 

Lemon actually owns the little patch of land where their small cabin sits, including their garden and yard. As a teen/young adult, Ivoe tries to convince her mother to sell out and move with her to [a larger city] for "more opportunity," particularly for Ivoe to apply her journalistic/writing skills. Barnett describes exactly why Lemon wants to retain her land...
  "The Williamses lounged beneath a cornflower-blue sky all afternoon. The chickweed grass, coarse and brilliant green, gave the earth a spongy feel beneath Ivoe, who lay stretched out with the newspaper over her stomach. The branches of a blackjack oak stirred a slight breeze for Roena and Timothy while they played cards in the fleeting twilight. Lemon crossed before Ennis's chair, causing his eyes to light up like stars as he reached out to pat her behind. Irabelle, playing in May-Belle's hair, watched a jaybird flutter away from the fig tree just as Bunk rolled onto his stomach, extending his forepaws on the porch he dusted with a fanning sweep of his tail. For a moment nothing stirred except now and then the call of a screech owl. They didn't have much but this happiness was their own." (74)
I guess this rang so true for me because I am a "country girl" at heart. I was raised in the country and crave the unique calm and quiet connectedness with nature provided by a rural setting just such as this...it really is idyllic to me and I could relate to Lemon's reluctance to give up this bit of peaceful isolation.

For it is just these types of "lazy days," so few and far between for those working hard to scrabble out a living, that can help offset some of the more frustrating and humiliating discriminatory experiences. Such as...a sheriff physically and all but sexually molesting Irabelle, their youngest (and most beautiful) daughter, as the deputy physically restrains Ennis (who must look on helplessly) while in a store in the neighboring town. The stark reality of a black man unable to help a fatally wounded white man, knowing full well that no matter how he might spin the story, he will be blamed for the injuries and/or death of the white man, just because he is...himself, black. Unbelievable to me that he had to choose to watch a man die rather than come to his aid, yet, I could understand this conundrum into which he was pulled by circumstances totally beyond his control...
Have you even heard of this book yet?
It is phenomenal!
The second portion of this review is here

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