A must-read for historical fiction fans that proves that there was far more to the 1920s than speakeasies and Model Ts.

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Ragtime for the Rockies

A young couple encounters the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Colorado in retired U.S. Naval Academy professor Lamb’s (Reasonable Disagreement: Two U. S. Senators and the Choices They Make, 1998) debut novel.

Newlyweds Ruby and Owen Mattison are excited to start their life together in Platteville, Colo., where Owen has secured a teaching job at the local high school. However, Platteville, like many other communities of the era, is struggling to acclimate to social changes. The school board believes that adding mandatory Bible reading to the school day will help instill proper values in its students. Local Catholics object to the school’s use of the King James Version of the Bible, as well as the idea of simply reading Scripture without providing interpretation. The Bible-reading conflict is just one of several large issues facing the town; local women are also starting expect more freedom, and the KKK is beginning to infiltrate the community. Despite these unforeseen stresses, everything seems to be coming together well for the Mattisons, but soon after Ruby becomes pregnant with a much-hoped-for child, tragedy strikes. The novel will likely be eye-opening to many readers as it brings various aspects of 1920s society, and particularly the KKK, to life. Ruby, with her bobbed hair, musical gifts and firm belief in greater rights for women, isn’t a flapper, as Platteville residents characterize her, but a relatively moderate representation of imminent change. Owen, meanwhile, proves to be surprisingly patient and diplomatic as he deals with the unreasonable, deeply embedded prejudices of school board members. Based on the experiences of Lamb’s father and his first wife in Colorado, this well-researched novel is compelling, if heartbreaking, and historically seems to be beyond reproach. The setting may seem almost foreign to some readers, but its portrayal of the human condition is unmistakably universal.

A must-read for historical fiction fans that proves that there was far more to the 1920s than speakeasies and Model Ts.  

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2012

ISBN: 978-1479722679

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2013

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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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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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