A clever, engaging, and heart-rending tale about a 1907 catastrophe in Appalachia.

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Beyond Monongah

AN APPALACHIAN STORY

A debut historical novel charts the buildup to and aftermath of the worst mining disaster in American history.

Set against the rural backdrop of Appalachia, this story opens in the midst of unthinkable chaos: an underground explosion in a coal mine. With an official death toll of 362, the 1907 Monongah, West Virginia, cataclysm left countless wives widowed and children without fathers. Here the blast is witnessed from ground level. Orie Morris is working in the mine when the accident occurs, while Hershel, his friend since boyhood, is on the surface. Hershel waits desperately with Orie’s wife, Bessie, as rescuers carry the bodies out, including Orie’s. The story skips back to 1896 and the 8-year-old Hershel preparing for his first day of work as a trapper boy, operating a trap door that allows fresh air into the mine shaft. By age 12, he progresses to becoming a mule wrangler and cementing a firm friendship with Orie. The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the young friends and how a community copes with loss when torn apart by tragedy. Bessie’s character is particularly well-developed, and her plight as a widow exposes prejudices against women of the era. When approaching the relief committee for money after Orie’s death, she finds the funds withheld on “moral” grounds. The fact that she has male boarders in her home proves tantamount to living in sin, and it is her duty to demonstrate otherwise. Similarly, her new boss, Mr. Humphrey, makes sexual advances toward her and then promises to ruin her reputation when she rebukes him. All the while, Hershel remains her rock, although Orie’s memory makes their relationship a complicated one. The writing here is graceful, emotionally intuitive, and thoroughly researched. Hoover expertly captures the essence of family life in the space of a sentence, here describing Orie and Bessie: “She, a tiny woman compared with her large and boisterous husband, loved to sing and loved to laugh, and he joined in the fun, never complaining if dinner was late because she was in the yard throwing a ball with the children.” Such warm tableaux are layered to create a living, breathing community whose pain is palpable and resilience, stirring. This results in fine and powerful work from a skilled historical interpreter that should appeal to American history buffs and romantics alike.

A clever, engaging, and heart-rending tale about a 1907 catastrophe in Appalachia. 

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4808-3619-8

Page Count: 254

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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