One wishes Ballard Godspeed in his wisely chosen new career. This is a fine beginning to it.

WHERE I’M BOUND

The experiences of black soldiers during the Civil War, and the ordeal of a family victimized and fragmented by slavery, are the subjects in this well-researched and solidly written debut novel, by a respected teacher and historian (One More Day’s Journey, not reviewed, etc.).

As the War draws to its close, runaway slave Joe Duckett escapes from a Confederate prison camp and joins the Union Army as a scout, then is soon made sergeant in a Colored Cavalry troop. Meanwhile (and in parallel chapters throughout), Joe’s wife Zenobia, left behind on the Kenworthy plantation in Mississippi, plans to escape to freedom with her youngest children (the two eldest having been sold to another owner), aided by black field-boss Drayton, who not-so-secretly loves her. Ballard leans rather too heavily on melodramatic coincidence: people who in real life doubtless would never have seen one another again manage to keep meeting on various estates and battlefields (the most egregious such examples are Joe’s chance reunion with his oldest son Luke and his man-to-man combat with Colonel Richard Kenworthy). But the story is swiftly paced and filled with vivid incidents, many of which, as an Author’s Note explains, are indeed historical: the court-martial aboard ship (a steamboat carrying cotton to Vicksburg) of a racist civilian who had interfered with a black soldier on sentry duty; Zenobia’s flight by raft in pursuit of a Yankee boat, and her capture by “deserters and irregulars”; and a horrific scene in which the Union Army unleashes maddened bloodhounds against its foe. The narrative is further distinguished by crisp, credible dialogue and scrupulously fair and fascinating portrayals of the wide spectrum of relationships—many of them genuinely loving ones—between embattled, indignant Southerners and “their” blacks. And you won’t soon forget the haunting final scene.

One wishes Ballard Godspeed in his wisely chosen new career. This is a fine beginning to it.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2000

ISBN: 0-684-87031-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2000

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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