Ross tells the story of a woman searching for peace in a threatened black community in the Hudson Valley.
Raised in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Baltimore, Bibsy arrives in New York to live with her sister and experience the Harlem nightlife of the 1950s. Her path takes an unexpected turn, however, after a chance encounter with Jake Tucker, a boisterous, light-skinned widower from a rural bend in the Hudson River who has come down to the city to get drunk and meet women. The two hit it off, and Bibsy returns with Jake to the Beach, his small outpost of black America in upstate New York, where he and his family subsist on hunting animals and growing vegetables. Adjusting to rural life takes some getting used to, particularly for Bibsy, who is trailed by her own unwelcome memories of childhood and familial complications. And yet country living seems liberating, far away from the expectations of urban life: “Jake’s place was so unkempt he couldn’t have made a worse mess on purpose,” she observes upon first reaching the Beach. “Everywhere else she’d lived had been very orderly and spotless; and she’d been expected to help keep it that way.” Their paradise becomes endangered, however, by plans to extend the state’s road system with a new bridge, and their quiet hamlet may be swallowed up by the encroaching threat of suburbanization. Ross is an infinitely humane writer, and her characters in this debut novel burst with humor and warmth. The love story of Jake and Bibsy remains endearing despite their flaws: it has the lived-in weight of a real love affair, not simply a literary creation. Bibsy’s back story, delivered piecemeal over the course of the book, provides just enough mystery to keep the reader hooked, but the true achievement is the revelation of small-town life among African-Americans in the middle of the last century. Readers are extremely familiar with depictions of Harlem, but the fictional Langston County provides a seldom-seen glimpse into a real piece of New York history, one that subsequent human migrations have erased from the map.
A lovingly constructed, engrossing novel about an African-American family and hamlet.