A Mississippi preacher’s daughter heads north—and comes home humbled.
In 1927, Cora Harvey dreams of becoming a singer. The gospel hymns she belts out in her father’s congregation have given her voice a soul-stirring fervor—at a time when plenty of coloreds are making names for themselves away from Jim Crow laws. But Cora’s sweetheart, David Mackey, a handsome doctor, wants her to marry him and stay in Rudell. Meanwhile, there are signs of change: a NAACP representative is coming to town, and Cora’s parents are his official hosts. But when they die in a suspicious fire, Cora is devastated. Reluctantly, David lets her go to Chicago to fulfill the dream she set aside when he began to court her. Cora’s overwhelmed by the big city, but she’s soon befriended by good-time girl Margaret, who gets her work bussing tables and, later, cleaning houses. Then, raped by a white employer, William Rutherford, Cora heads home to David’s welcoming arms, never telling him what happened. When her child is born—a girl—it’s only too clear that the father is white. David hightails it two days later. Emma grows up ashamed of her mother for being nothing but cleaning woman, and eventually learns about her real father and goes north to find him. Her pale complexion and brilliant green eyes allow her to pass for white—and she soon has a handsome admirer, Michael Travanti, an Italian-American soldier. They marry shortly after she confronts Rutherford and Michael heads off to war. Not telling him, she gives birth to a daughter, then gives the infant to her mother to raise because the baby’s skin is so dark. Named Parris, the girl grows up knowing none of this, though she’s the one who at long last will reunite and heal the family.
Heartfelt vividness breathes life into a soap-ish plot from Hill (Shipwreck Season, 1998, etc.).