Of academic interest only.

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WHEN WASHINGTON WAS IN VOGUE

Long-lost fiction, written in the 1920s by the first professionally trained African-American librarian, about a young man’s romantic adventures among the black elite of Washington, DC.

Williams (1871–1929), a minor figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was a mulatto (his mother was Irish) who serialized this story in The Messenger in 1925 and 1926. Published now as a novel, it consists entirely of letters written by WWI veteran Davy Carr describing his first impressions of Washington to his old army buddy Bob Fletcher back in Harlem. Davy is light enough to pass for white, and he moves somewhat self-consciously through the upper echelons of the District’s black society (where nuances of “lightness” or “darkness” take on an almost Talmudic importance) as he researches a study of the African slave trade. At his boardinghouse, Davy becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with his landlady’s daughter, Caroline Rhodes, a kind of African-American Sally Bowles who smokes cigarettes, flirts shamelessly, and knows all the latest dances. Serious and high-minded—and, frankly, something of a stuffed shirt—Davy disapproves of Caroline and tells her so. But he’s drawn to her in spite of himself. The story is basic boy-meets-girl, with the ending a foregone conclusion by the second chapter and no really convincing obstacles in the way, so that the only distinguishing features to speak of are race and class. The fact that Caroline is dark-skinned while Davy is light may throw in a dramatic frisson for historians and Black Studies scholars, but for most of us this will have little engaging power or lift. Meanwhile, Williams’s petty snobberies are aggravating enough without the addition of his bad imitation of Jane Austen (“The ladies, except Mrs. Wallace, are all very fair, and would not be likely to be taken for colored, and in manner and dress they all of them showed real class”).

Of academic interest only.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-06-055545-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2003

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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