A social novel tells the story of a nightclub singer and a troubled jazz musician dealing with the turmoil of the mid-20th century.
Chicago, 1935. Things improve for young Pearl Sayles and her family once her abusive father leaves the house. Pearl finally gets to attend school, where a kindly teacher helps her to learn to read and to take pride in her black features. Tragedy strikes when her father reappears and kidnaps her younger brother, Ronnie. Two years later, black jazz musician Demetrius “Doc” Calhoun and his friend Jimmy Turner sneak into Spain to join the International Brigades—despite Doc’s never considering himself a “joiner.” After Jimmy is killed, Doc learns the horrible cost of combat, though he still signs up to fight the Nazis a few years later during World War II. After the war, a reunited Pearl and Ronnie leave their painful history in Chicago to start over in New York, where the Harlem jazz scene is flourishing. Pearl finds a job singing in a nightclub, while Ronnie—a former sex worker—is exposed to the city’s blossoming gay culture. Pearl curiously notices the heroin habit of one of the other musicians: “He was never unpleasant, but on the nights he seemed especially happy onstage, she always smiled, glad that he had found something in that needle to chase away his blues.” When Ronnie falls back to his old ways of making money, he disappears, and Pearl turns to the drug to dull her pain. Soon she meets Doc, who has returned from the war with his own demons to find his place back in New York’s music scene. As heroin, the Red Scare, and the civil rights movement begin to reshape the world around them, Pearl, Doc, and Ronnie will have to pull together in order to survive the 20th century.
Smith’s (Mello Yello, 2015, etc.) writing is accessible and deeply in tune with the emotional state of her characters. Her prose is matter-of-fact and laden with poignant details that unlock the darkness that haunts the story: “As she ran the soothing cold water over her ring finger, she jiggled her right bicuspid with her tongue. She had lost one of her back teeth a few months earlier, and now this one was so loose she was afraid it would fall out at supper. There was no money for a dentist, but she didn’t care. Not today.” Pearl is the center of the novel and its most realized character. The author has found a way to make the ups and downs of the mid-20th century feel like an inevitable outgrowth of Pearl’s personal life rather than historical events upon which she has been indelicately grafted. Doc’s storyline feels a bit more contrived, particularly the conversations he has during the war years, which frame the book’s notions of right and wrong in an unnecessarily overt way. Even so, Smith has woven a compelling, character-driven narrative in which readers should quickly become emotionally invested.
An engrossing tale of romantic and familial love set against the exciting radicalism of the ’40s and ’50s music, drug, and political cultures.