A strong, often poignant illustration of slavery’s destructiveness.

SPINNING JENNY

A NOVEL

McLain’s character-driven debut historical novel blends a tale of ill-fated love with a scathing indictment of slavery.

In 1833, 22-year-old Cornelius Carson is a slave owner who buys a second slave for his small cotton farm in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie: a small, 10-year-old girl, whom he names Jenny, who looks frail and speaks no English. She seems barely strong enough to work the fields alongside the aging Malachi, his other slave, who’s been on his farm for three years. Cornelius is courting a beautiful woman named Stephanie Coqterre of Natchez, Mississippi, and when her wealthy stepfather, Emile, refuses to give them permission to marry, they elope. However, the young bride is unprepared for life in a two-room cabin without house servants. Thus begins the self-destruction of a family—a story that makes up much of the novel’s plot. However, the heart of this narrative lies in McLain’s in-depth portrayals of Jenny and Malachi, and of the slaves on the Coqterre plantation. Jenny, who just recently arrived from Africa on a slave ship, was separated from her brother when he was sold to another family. Malachi, now with his third owner, comes from Virginia: “I was sold away from my mammy when I was twelve years old,” he tells Jenny. “And I never seen my mammy from that day to this.” As Jenny learns English and becomes a competent field worker, McLain portrays how she and Malachi interact, showing the unusual familiarity of speech between them, and how, in quiet times, they share their longing for freedom. The author also creates vivid moments of tenderness, such as when Malachi carves a doll for Jenny, or even when Cornelius tends to her blistered hands. She also effectively depicts incidents of unabashed cruelty on the larger plantations, such as when a young boy has his foot cut off when he tries to escape, or when wives are sold without their husbands.

A strong, often poignant illustration of slavery’s destructiveness.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5398-9028-7

Page Count: 358

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2017

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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