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Friday Fun! (June: Vacation at the Races)

The motorcycle race track has many turns and elevation changes to be more interesting for the racers.

The motorcycle race track has many turns and elevation changes to be more interesting for the racers.

Hello my lovely readers!

After the busyness of May, I was incredibly grateful to have a whole week off in the month of June!  My bf only had half the week off, so at the start of the week I spring cleaned (umm….in June), made my favorite pie (strawberry-rhubarb), and got ready for our camping trip at the races.  My bf’s hobby is racing motorcycles, and when he goes to the track, he camps there.  Since I had the time off, I was able to go with him.  I’m not able to go every time, unfortunately.  I was so excited to get to be there! I love getting to see him race!  It’s so exciting, and I love that his hobby is so unique and requires such a complex skill set, from actually riding to maintaining the bike.  I also love camping and camping at the track is a wonderful different kind of camping.  The excitement of being at the track and hanging out with the racers and their families and pit crews around the campfire at night is so much fun.  My dad bought us a grill, so I was finally able to cook most of our foods at the track.  I took to pinterest and discovered lots of fun things you can grill.  I made us grilled tofu tacos, grilled quesadillas, breakfast of course, and, our favorite, zucchini parmesan.  I loved getting to spend so much time on one of my hobbies while supporting my boyfriend’s.

With my vacation in there, I’m pleased with how many book reviews I managed to write this month (eight).  I had dubbed June the month of reading ARCs, and I managed to get through four of them this month, taking my total number of TBR ARCs down to 16.  I finished designing a new cross-stitch pattern, but I have yet to post it since it is a present, and the recipient has yet to receive it!  This month I’ll be working on my first commission.  I’m excited to show it to you guys when I’m finished.

Happy reading!

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Friday Fun! (April: Busyness and Hiking)

View of Boston city skyline

The view of Boston on our hike.

Hello my lovely readers!

April was such a busy month, I can actually hardly believe it’s over already!  It’s always a busy month for me at work, as I help organize and run an annual event on-campus.  In addition this month, we also welcomed a new program to our campus, so the library was very busy putting in the groundwork for supporting students studying that new subject area.  I also submitted my first-ever poster abstract.  So busy!  On top of this, the weekend of my work event was the same weekend as the first motorcycle race weekend of the season for my partner.  He was incredibly busy prepping for the races.  Instead of just the normal getting everything running again after the long winter, he also was prepping a new (to him) race bike to be track ready.  Since I couldn’t go with him for the first race weekend, I wanted to send along something nice, so I made him a pie and cookies for carb-loading at the track.  I honestly found the baking to be stress-relieving and really enjoyed it.  I’m happy to report both the work event and the first race weekend went well!

In spite of the busyness, we were able to squeeze in quite a few hangouts with friends and dates for ourselves.  One of our dates was to hike a local trail on Easter Sunday.  It was gorgeous weather in a month of a lot of iffy weather.  I always find it so refreshing to get outside and in the woods, and even more so with my boyfriend.  We saw lots of jack-in-the-pulpits and also got a great view of Boston.

My stitching slowed down a bit this month, although I did release the first design in a new line–rhubarb in foraging New England.  The rest of the patterns for the line are designed but they still need to be trial-stitched! I hope to release at least one of them this month.

I read and reviewed four books this month, sticking to my overall goal of one book a week.  I’ll be happy if I manage to stick to that during my upcoming even busier month of May! In my own writing, I’m still working away whenever I have the time on my new book idea, writing background short stories.  The typewriter my bf got me for Christmas is coming in really handy, freeing me of distractions.

Happy reading!

Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Fire Baptized by Kenya Wright (Series, #1)

Woman covered in fire against a black bacground.Summary:
The humans won the supe-human war, and now all supernaturals are confined to caged cities whose bars are made up of every metal that is harmful to supes. They also all have a brand on their forehead letting everyone now immediately what type of supernatural they are–crescent moon for shifter, full moon for vampire, wings for fairy, X for mixbreed, which is what Lanore just happens to be. Lanore is hoping to be the first mixie to graduate from the caged city’s university, and she also works on the side with another mixie, Zulu, to run a mixie civil rights group. The purebloods by and large hate mixies. As if her life wasn’t already complicated enough, one night Lanore witnesses a murder, and the murderer turns out to be a serial killer. Now Lanore is on his list.

Review:
I am so glad I accepted this review copy.  The branding of supes and caged cities was enough to show me that this is a unique urban fantasy series, but I wasn’t aware that it’s also a heavily African-American culture influenced series, and that just makes it even more unique and fun.

It’s not new to parallel supe civil rights issues with those of minorities, but they often flounder.  Wright’s book depicts the complexities eloquently.  Making a group within the supes that the supes hate makes it more closely parallel the real world.  The addition of the brands on the foreheads also makes the supernatural race immediately identifiable just as race is in the real world by skin color.  The caged cities are also a great analogy of inner city life and how much of a trap it can feel like.  The fact that Lanore accidentally witnesses a murder on her way home from school is something that can and does happen in the real world.

The other element that I really enjoyed is how Wright brings the African-American religion of Santeria into the mix.  She provides multiple perspectives on the religion naturally through the different characters.  Lanore doesn’t believe in any religion. MeShack, her ex-boyfriend and roommate, does, and it helps him in his life.  And of course the serial killer also believes in Santeria but is going about it the wrong way, as Lanore eventually learns.  The book naturally teaches the reader a few things about Santeria, which is often maligned and misunderstood in America.  But it does it within the course of the story without ever feeling preachy.

The sex scenes (we all know we partially read urban fantasy for those) were hot and incorporated shifter abilities without ever tipping too far into creepy beastiality land.  They were so well-written, I actually found myself blushing a bit to be reading them on the bus (and hoped no one would peak over my shoulder at that moment).

The plot itself is strong through most of the book.  The serial killer is genuinely scary, and Lanore doesn’t suddenly morph into some superhero overnight. She maintains her everywoman quality throughout.  I wasn’t totally happy with the climax.  I didn’t dislike it, but I also think the rest of the book was so well-done that I was expecting something a bit more earth-shattering.

There are two things in the book that knocked it down from loved it to really liked it for me.  They both have to do with Zulu.  Zulu is a white guy, but his beast form is a black dude with silver wings. I am really not sure what Wright is trying to say with this characterization and plot point.  It wasn’t clear when it first happens, and I was still baffled by the choice by the end of the book.  In a book that so clearly talks about race, with an author so attuned to the issues innate in race relations, it is clear that this was a conscious choice on her part.  But I am still unclear as to why.  Hopefully the rest of the books in the series will clear this up for me.  My other issue is with how possessive Zulu is of Lanore. He essentially tells her that she’s his whether she likes it or not, and she goes along with it. Why must this theme come up over and over again in urban fantasy and paranormal romance? A man can have supernatural powers and not use them as an excuse to be an abusive douche. I’m just saying. But. This is part of a series, so perhaps these two issues will be addressed in the next book.  But for right now, I’m kinda sad that Lanore chose Zulu.

Overall, this is a unique piece of urban fantasy.  The tables are turned on the supes with them in caged cities, and the creative use of forehead brands and the existence of mixed-breed supernaturals are used intelligently as a commentary on race relations in the United States.  I highly recommend it to urban fantasy fans and am eagerly anticipating reading the next entry in the series myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context

February 28, 2012 8 comments

On September 3, 2011, myself and Amy of Amy Reads announced our intention to co-host a reading project devoted to reading the list of recommended reads put out by the Association of Black Women Historians in response to the incredible popularity of Kathryn Stockett’s book (and later, movie) The Help.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve already completed reading all 10 books.  I sort of feel like I took a mini class on the history of black women’s labor in the US, and I’m so glad I did.

Although I was a US History major (and also English) in undergrad, I tended to focus more on colonization, westward expansion, and World War II.  The Civil War was not a thing of mine, nor was the Great Migration or the Civil Rights movement.  It may sound silly, but when you’ve only got 8 to 10 courses, some of which are taken up by requirements, to cover all of US history, some things just don’t get covered, especially if you don’t already have an interest in them.  So, although I knew right away that something was WRONG with The Help, it was difficult for me to elaborate exactly what.  I knew it was wrong for a white woman to be putting words in black women’s mouths about a time period that is so recent and still stings.  I knew that having the main, white character come in and rescue the black help was wrong.  And I knew that putting such a rosy color on a time period that was anything BUT rosy was revisionist and distasteful.  But I didn’t know enough about black women’s history to say much beyond that.

Well, thanks to this project, I know so much more now.  I know enough to elaborate in more detail what is offensive about The Help.  But before we talk about that, I want to talk about some of the things that I learned.

In the first read, A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, we followed the life of a fictional biracial (but seen as black) woman living first as a slave then as a freewoman.  In this book I learned all of the negative connotations associated with working within a white household due to slavery.  We saw how Moinette was seen as sexual competition by the white women while simultaneously being raped by the white men.  This helped establish the false stereotype of black women as seductresses that must be controlled and watched within the home.  We also saw how slave women were forced to wear rags whereas white ladies wore finery.  This is a difference that racist whites later attempted to replicate by forcing uniforms upon their live-in and live-out servants.  This was also the first instance in the project where we saw that although some semblance of friendship could come up between black and white women, they could never truly be friends while living in a racist, unequal society.

The first nonfiction book–Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones–covered the largest time period of any that we read, sweeping from slavery up through the Civil Rights era.  It was, frankly, daunting and one I wish in retrospect I could have read over a longer time period to let things sink in more.  Yet, through this book we saw the parallel line of black history in the background of mainstream history taught in schools.  In this book we learned how African-American culture developed to be different from white culture but certainly no less valid.  For instance, we saw how slavery and its methods established the matriarchy and forced the stereotype of the “strong black woman” upon all black women, whether they wanted to be independent and the matriarch or not.  This book was also the first instance where we saw the incredibly brave front-line roles black women played during the Civil Rights movement from protecting voting registration workers with rifles to braving hostile whites when entering segregated areas.  This book also gave me an understanding of why black feminists and black women sometimes disagree with white feminists and white women about women’s role in the home.  For so long black families were forced apart or the black wives and mothers were forced to work out of the home that the idea of being the lady of the house is appealing as an equal right.  Although modern feminists talk about women’s right to choose what kind of life they’re going to lead, I think it’s really important to realize that for black American women for a long time they had no choice but to work outside the home–the exact opposite of white American women.

Our second fiction book–The Book of Night Women by Marlon James–is one I’m honestly a bit baffled over its inclusion on the list.  It’s set in Jamaica and is entirely about a slave rebellion on that plantation.  Although I loved the book and got a lot of emotional depth out of it, I don’t feel as if it informed me much on the topic at hand.  It did demonstrate how it can be difficult or even impossible to find a way out of a corrupt system, which is a good reminder when studying the past and wondering why so-and-so didn’t do thus-and-such.  Hindsight is 20/20, and even when in possession of it, there’s still no clear way out.  This book, then, reminded us not to judge others’ choices too harshly.

The next nonfiction read was the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.  I’m personally partial to memoirs as a learning tool, because I think one of the best ways to learn about something is through the eyes of someone who lived it.  Anne Moody grew up in the south during Jim Crow and also became famous for a sit-in she participated in at Woolworth’s.  This read demonstrated two key things.  First, that black women were involved in the quest for civil rights without any need of poking or prodding from well-meaning white women.  Second, it demonstrated that the assertions made in the nonfiction earlier about the help were true.  Anne’s mother and herself both worked as domestic help, and Anne vividly recalls her mother working all hours of the day, even right after having a baby, bringing home the white family’s leftovers, and the way the help was trusted and simultaneously feared and distrusted by the people who employed them.  Moody’s memoir is an angry one, but she certainly had a right to be an angry woman.

Our next read was Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress, which is an assembly of a serial written by Childress in the 1950s revolving entirely around the life of a domestic servant, Mildred.  Through these vignettes Childress addresses the tough situations domestic help encountered in the 1950s and sometimes plays out fantasies the help may have had such as telling off the employer, whereas in real life they might not be able to afford to do that.  I admit that while I was reading this collection, I wasn’t sure as to the value of it, but I found myself thinking back on it again and again throughout the rest of the project.  The book basically demonstrates the absurdity of employers calling the help a member of the family when the whole situation is steeped in inequality and racism.  This book is even more valuable since it was written by an educated black woman who had to periodically work in domestic service during the 1950s.

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph was our next nonfiction read, and it narrows its focus in on relationships between black and white women in the south from right before the Civil War to right after.  This book clearly demonstrates why a simple loving friendship between the help and the children in the household she works in just would not be logically possible.  The book demonstrates with historical documents how much energy white women in the south used simply to attempt to maintain their false position as “better than” black women.  This book demonstrated the complex cultural and racial relationship between black and white women that could not simply be fixed by one well-meaning college-educated southerner.

We then read The Street by Ann Petry, which I discovered is considered a classic of black American literature.  This book demonstrates the life of a black woman who first works as a live-in but then winds up having to come home to move out with her son after discovering her husband’s affair.  She then does everything she can to avoid domestic work and keep her son safely on the straight and narrow.  Although very little of this book is set in a domestic help situation, the beginning of the book, as well, as Lutie’s ever-failing quest to care for her son demonstrates the adverse affect that a society dependent upon racially divided domestic help has on those at the bottom of the totem pole, not to mention the culture at large.  The book is not subtle, but it is an enjoyable read and clearly related to the topic.

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter looked at the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, classism, and domestic labor by narrowing its focus in on the city of Atlanta and covering its history from all of these perspectives.  It is difficult, nay, impossible, to summarize everything I learned through this incredible book. Suffice to say, nothing we read made it clearer the nearly impossible obstacles faced by southern black women in domestic work or made Kathryn Stockett’s book so abundantly clearly ridiculous and naive.

Our final fiction read was Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.  This was definitely the most mainstream entertaining book of the project.  It is kind of a cozy mystery in which the crime solver just so happens to be a feisty black domestic servant woman named Blanche.  Everything we learned so far about the complexities innate in the domestic help situation are abundantly clear in the story without being preachy.  I found myself wondering how this book did not become more popular when it was first released.  It is such a clever mystery novel.

Our final read was Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis,  which, as the title indicates, focused in on the differences between help that lives in the home and help that lives outside of the home, and why black women drastically prefer the latter.  This is a short read, but it clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing affect of both racism and domestic labor for those subjected to it.

So, given all of that, how would I characterize what is wrong with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help now?  I would say it drastically oversimplifies the serious, life-threatening, soul-stealing world of racism in the American south and also innate in the employer/servant dichotomy.  It places the reins of social change in the hands of a kind white woman who views the help like one of the family, when in reality it was through the courage and strength of black women that the civil rights movement had any chance at all.  And they certainly did not view themselves as a member of the family for whom they worked for disgustingly low wages.  It seeks to rewrite history in a way that will assuage white guilt (most likely foremost the white guilt of the author) and retroactively removes the very real civil rights agency demonstrated by black women in the south from them.  It is a racist book because it oversimplifies and dumbs down what is a complex and sad chapter in American history that everyone should clearly understand for what it was to prevent us from ever reliving it.

Now, I know not everyone has the time or the energy to read all of the books on this list.  So what are my recommendations?

If you want a popular-style, fun book to read instead of The Help, I recommend you pick up Blanche on the Lam.  It is also a whole series, so there’s lots of room for prolonged entertainment without the disgusting rewriting of history seen in The Help.

If you are more interested in the civil rights movement and the involvement of domestic help in it, then I suggest you pick up the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.

If you like short stories and want to hear the voice of the real help from the 1950s, then I suggest you pick up Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.

If you really enjoy a well-researched, well-documented piece of nonfiction in your life and want a much clearer understanding of race in the populous southern city of Atlanta, then definitely pick up To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.

Finally, if you want a short nonfiction read that quickly covers some of the issues innate in racially based domestic help through the voices of the women who lived it, then you should pick up Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940.

I am very grateful to the Association of Black Women Historians for taking the time to assemble and post this list.  I learned so much from reading through it and am now able to eloquently defend my stance on why it’s sad and wrong that The Help became such a popular read.  I encourage you all to follow your gut and question when something is popular that just doesn’t seem quite right to you.  Read up on the real history and find the little-known gems of fiction that are brave enough to confront the real issues.  The publishing industry will only change what it puts out and pushes on the public when we change our demands.  I can say that Amy and I already saw at least two of the books on the list go from unavailable on the Kindle to available in the time that we worked on this project.  We hope that this at least in a small part had to do with a new demand for the titles due to the release of the list from the ABWH or maybe even from ourselves talking about these lesser-known books on the blogosphere.

What I ask of each of you readers in conclusion is to choose just one book from the list to read.  Challenge yourself and try something that isn’t “popular.”  You’ll be surprised at what you discover and learn.

Movie Review: Skin (2008) South Africa

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Young black woman with an afro.Summary:
Based on a true story, Sandra Laing was born black to two white parents.  Something that is an interesting anomaly of unacknowledged or unknown ancestors, but unfortunately for Sandra it was oh so much more than that.  Sandra was born in South Africa during Apartheid, and her white Afrikaner parents were members of the National Party.  This film chronicles her fascinating life from a young girl hidden from the sun in the hopes that her skin would lighten as she grew older to a young runaway marriage to striking out on her own with her children.

Review:
I know movie reviews have been scarce around here.  That’s mostly because since I joined the gym my evening free time is spent either there or reading.  This weekend though I had a cold and a bit of a fuzzy head from a fever so I randomly chose an interesting looking movie from my Netflix recommendations.  I had no idea when I chose it that Sandra Laing’s story is a true one.  I didn’t realize this bit of information until the end credits.  I thought it was one of those “what if” scenarios and knowing that this actually happened makes the whole thing incredibly painful.

We know that innate parental unconditional love is a myth.  And if there was ever a true story that should unequivocally dispel this myth once and for all, it’s Sandra’s.  Is there anything more abusive, more unloving than raising your child in a culture that hates her and doing, really, nothing about it?  Although her parents did fight to have her classified as white and not colored (so they could keep custody of her, because apparently children had to be raised by parents of the same race during Apartheid), they did little else to protect her.  Indeed, by her teen years her father was pressuring her to behave for white boys who were being verbally cruel at best or attempting to rape her at worst on dates.  It’s little wonder Sandra ran off to be with a black man she met.  Your role as a parent should be to protect your child and prepare her to take care of herself in the real world and advocate for herself.  But Sandra’s parents’ racism clouded everything so much that the most they did was attempt to hide her.

Of course, the problem then became that Sandra was raised in a privileged background, and that’s all some of the black South Africans could see when they looked at her, including her own husband.  He says to her at one point, “You still think of yourself as white.”  I find it fascinating how people can become so wrapped up in their own problems resulting from inequality that they fail to see the pain inflicted by it on others, even others that they love.

The actress who plays the older Sandra does a great job showing her progression from a hopeful teen to a downtrodden factory worker at the end of Apartheid.  The trauma from a life where everyone judged her either on her own skin tone or that of her parents is abundantly evident on the actresses’ face.

That said, while the topic is incredibly important and the true life events heart-breaking, I don’t think the movie itself does the real story true justice.  The actors and actresses did a fine job with what they were given, but even basic googling shows that the story was cleaned up for a mainstream audience, which I think was a very poor decision on the part of the filmmakers.  Sandra’s life was actually more difficult than they even give her credit for.  For instance, she left home at only 15 (she seems much older in the film), her first husband already had a first wife, she actually had six children not two, etc….  (Essence, The Guardian, Women and Hollywood)

Personally, I view this movie as a gateway to the far more fascinating nitty gritty true story.  I’m adding the book by the journalist Judith Stone about her work with Sandra to attempt to figure out her past called When She Was White.  But.  If you don’t have the time to get into it in depth, the short biopic is definitely a better choice than say the latest romcom out of Hollywood.  It will push you to confront the tragedy of racism and the myth of parental love against all odds.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix Instant

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Book Review: Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (Series, #1) (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 28, 2012 4 comments

Black woman standing in front of house with hand on hip.Summary:
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks.  She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam.  She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out.  She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside.  Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.

Review:
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list.  And what a book!  If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.

Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project.  Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more.  Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong.  She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her.  I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:

She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)

That’s one of the wonderful things about this book.  It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head.  Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles.  Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.

Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield.  Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature.  Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world.  At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things.  Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton.  But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week.  If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid.  Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad.  Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.

Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel.  I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies.  I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done.  It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome.  It is absolutely a worthwhile read.

Source: Public Library

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Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
  • Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind.  Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
  • Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies.  What do you think of this assessment?