Tewogbade’s (During a Dry Season, 2013) novel portrays a turbulent African-American family living in Atlanta during the deadly riots of 1906.
Thirty-eight years after ratification of the 14th Amendment, which officially freed the slaves, race riots broke out in Atlanta. Stirred up by stories in white-owned newspapers of alleged rapes of white women by black men, armed white gangs took to the streets, burning black-owned homes and businesses, raping and beating black women, and lynching black men. This novel begins nearly two weeks before the riots. Queen Isabella Redmond, the matriarch of an African-American Georgia family, is in her youngest daughter Ruby Norris’ dirt-floor house, acting as midwife during the birth of the 17-year-old’s first baby. Ruby’s husband, Lee Norris, is currently in jail, working a chain gang, after being arrested for “so-called reckless eyeballing.” Isabella gasps when she sees that her new grandchild’s skin is white, and she feels that Ruby has disgraced the family. Her oldest daughter, Beatrice, lives across town in the neighborhood of Brownsville with her husband, JC, a teacher. They and Isabella’s son, Fat, are the most prosperous members of the family. The fourth sibling, Mary Alice, returns to the city unexpectedly after having disappeared seven years ago; the light-skinned woman had been “passing” as white and living in New York City until her fiance tried to strangle her. But shortly after she arrives in Atlanta, the street violence begins. In this novel, Tewogbade depicts the atrocities of the rioting in graphic detail, as when she describes the white mobs who “paraded severed ears, fingers, and toes through the streets, and hung the hats of lynched bodies on lamp poles.” In this way, she effectively brings across the unspeakable horror of a real-life event. However, the soul of the novel is to be found in the larger family drama—tales of sibling rivalries and vividly portrayed daily struggles against poverty and racial oppression. The characters are shown to have indomitable spirits and a devotion to family despite the disparate paths that they take. The skillful prose is heavy on dialogue, which will keep readers in the moment.
Engaging, poignant, and historically informative.