A stirring tale rooted in the language and experience of the Alabama community it depicts.


The Burden of Sweetberry

In this debut historical novel, a Southern African-American enclave struggles with a public tragedy.

In the early 1960s, the African-American community in Sipsey, Alabama, is rocked by a scandal centered on a woman named Candida Ellen “Sweetberry” Armstrong. Sweetberry has spent two decades working menial cleaning jobs, raising two college-bound daughters as a single mother, and carrying on an affair with a prominent married man, Deacon Josiah Hess. Her hard times seem to finally be over when she becomes engaged to Luther McGill, a local man who went to Philadelphia to make his fortune—through both legal and illegal means—and returned home a success. But this dream is shattered when Hess beats McGill to death in a jealous rage outside the First Macedonia Baptist Church. The novel builds from this central tragedy, exploring the causes of the trauma, and its effects on not only Sweetberry and her family, but the entire community. Much of this plays out in the courtroom at Hess’ trial, in front of an all-white jury. Sipsey—and more specifically, First Macedonia—is as much at the heart of the book as Sweetberry herself. The novel’s greatest asset is Gosa-Summerville’s ear for the language of the townsfolk, and her ability to interweave their different voices together. Early in the novel, a communal narrative voice responds to a rumor of Sweetberry’s suicide attempt: “This drew blood from the turnip! How dare she? Wasn’t she God’s creation?” The book’s language is further enriched with the seamless inclusion of hymns. In one moving scene, Sweetberry’s plaintive call of “Who shall I be?” is answered with the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” The author’s handling of the story is a bit less smooth. Events and information are often telegraphed, over-summarized, and repeated in different ways. Little is held back, so the various plot points, while intriguing, never come to the reader as surprises or revelations. This could be a leaner, more shapely novel. Still, the sound of each page is a pleasure.

A stirring tale rooted in the language and experience of the Alabama community it depicts.

Pub Date: May 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5238-4274-2

Page Count: 414

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2016

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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These letters from some important executive Down Below, to one of the junior devils here on earth, whose job is to corrupt mortals, are witty and written in a breezy style seldom found in religious literature. The author quotes Luther, who said: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." This the author does most successfully, for by presenting some of our modern and not-so-modern beliefs as emanating from the devil's headquarters, he succeeds in making his reader feel like an ass for ever having believed in such ideas. This kind of presentation gives the author a tremendous advantage over the reader, however, for the more timid reader may feel a sense of guilt after putting down this book. It is a clever book, and for the clever reader, rather than the too-earnest soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1942

ISBN: 0060652934

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1943

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