An impassioned historical novel chronicles the early-20th-century resurgence of African-American activism through the life of a poor Texas girl who channels a lifelong love of newsprint into a groundbreaking journalism career.
Barnett, who has edited such anthologies as Off the Record: Conversations with African American and Brazilian Women Musicians (2014), makes her fiction debut with this coming-of-age saga, set at the hinge of the 19th and 20th centuries, about Ivoe Williams, a bright, avid daughter of a Muslim cook and a metalworker struggling to make ends meet in post-Reconstruction central Texas. Despite her bleak segregated environment, Ivoe grows up infatuated with the written word, most especially with the immediacy and color of newspapers she finds and, at least once, steals from her mother’s white employer. Barnett excels here at what for most writers is a difficult task: evoking what it feels like to grow into one’s calling as a writer through psychological intimacy as much as immediate experiences. The book is equally attentive in conceiving those who are closest to Ivoe, including her parents and siblings and two women with whom she would become emotionally involved while attending college: Berdis, the mercurial, flamboyant piano prodigy, and Ona, the magnetic, empathetic instructor who falls in love with Ivoe and eventually helps establish their own newspaper in Kansas City. Barnett’s book is clearly inspired by the lives of crusading black journalists such as Ida B. Wells who inspired their communities to fight Jim Crow customs and legally sanctioned lynching. Yet most of those insurgent moments are crowded—jammed, if you will—toward the novel’s end. One is left wanting less of a young black woman’s rite of passage in a hostile environment, experiences amply represented in literature, and far more of Ivoe’s journalistic accomplishments, about which there has been relatively little in American fiction.
Now that we’ve seen how Ivoe Williams came to be, we’d like to see much more of the great things she was able to do with her craft. Maybe Barnett can oblige us. She’s got the talent to do so.