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If I had to name my favorite memoir about loss, it would be Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning, by Debby Bull. It’s not sad, and no one dies. But it has some of the best lessons about how to work through despair of any book I’ve ever read on the subject.

In it, the author mourns the end of a relationship—“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart”—and copes with her heartache by learning how to can jellies, jams, preserves, and chutneys.

Sound lightweight? Maybe not, if you’ve just broken up with the love of your life. Besides, despite its charming and hilarious premise, Blue Jelly offers an instructive way to overcome depression.

Through canning, Bull says, “You create an orderly little world. Unlike what has happened to you, these steps take you to what you planned on. You become a person in a world in which things turn out the way you thought they would.”

And that, on so many levels, is the answer to dealing with grief and loss: the remaking of your broken world.

If you’re like me, you’d rather write about it than can your troubles away. As a former contributing editor and writer for Rolling Stone, Bull had an advantage when it came to telling her story. But what if you’re new to the craft and not sure where to start? What if your grief runs deeper than the end of a romantic relationship? What if you’re afraid of alienating family and friends by writing about it?

That’s where Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss comes in, a comprehensive new handbook that answers all these questions and more. Author Jessica Handler has walked the walk. When she was ten years old, her eight-year-old sister Susie died of leukemia. Their sister Sarah, then only four, was diagnosed with a rare and fatal blood disorder and died when Handler was 32. In 2010, the memoir Handler wrote about them, Invisible Sisters, became her means of remembering those lost girls, of “capturing our lives and holding them for myself, our friends, family and perhaps people who never knew us …”

It also became Handler’s way of remembering herself, of understanding who she was then and how the events shaped her as a person—“who I became after grief changed me.” A good memoir, she explains, tries to share that journey. One of the first questions she suggests we ask is Why do I want to tell my story? and quotes memoirist Robin Hemley, who agrees: “The first detective act is to try to peer through the keyhole into who you really are. Figure out why you’re telling the story in the first place, and who is this person telling the story.”

“Things don’t go away. They become you,” Darin Strauss tells us. Strauss—whose book Half A Life chronicles the effects of a tragic accident—and Hemley are two of the dozens of memoirists Handler spoke with, and whose expert advice she shares in her book. Others include Natasha Trethewey, Nick Flynn, Mary Karr, Neil White, Abigail Thomas, and Janisse Ray. She also uses examples from classic memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family, John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

Through a close examination of these authors and their craft, Braving the Fire clarifies the tasks facing any writer—of discovering meaning in details, searching for metaphors, and developing voice and point of view, which in turn provide portals into your own story. The six sections are based on the Five Stages of Grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—proposed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Handler adds to these a sixth stage: Renewal.

Like a series of casual but intensive workshops, each chapter offers examples, tips, exercises, and steps to follow, as well as sections labeled “My Story,” in which Handler explains in depth the stages she went through to write Invisible Sisters. Here, for instance, she describes a trip she dreaded making in her hometown, Atlanta.

For me, time-travel research meant visiting the children’s hospital where Susie and Sarah often stayed for weeks at a time… It took a few weeks of thinking about it for me to summon the nerve… I didn’t want to go back. I remembered my young self there as scared, guilty, and sorrowful, but I’d already started writing about the whispering ease of the automatic doors into the lobby, the steam smell of the cafeteria… I knew that in order for my book to be accurate and for me to feel confident that I had written tough material in the best way I knew how, I had to go. One day I just did it: I stuck my hand into the fire.

Handler, who has taught screenwriting and now leads workshops in creative writing, memoir, and feature journalism, covers every possible aspect of getting your story down on paper. She guides the reader through the process of evaluating the raw material of memoir as well as shaping it, of finding the right form through experimenting with arrangement, chronology, styles, the inclusion of different materials like photography, lyrics, letters, etc.

Some of the techniques mentioned were new to me, such as the double-entry notebook—a way to detail your research alongside your thoughts and reactions to it—or the screenwriter’s “beat sheets,” using index cards that indicate the action and characters in each scene. And although it never would have occurred to me that writing about grief might take an emotional toll, Handler devotes an entire chapter to the importance of taking care of yourself while you revisit painful material.

I would add another tip: Keep pen and paper handy as you’re reading her book because you’ll want to make notes and copy down quotes like this one: “Disagreeing with yourself is the life-blood of memoir,” says Ethan Gilsdorf. “One of the reasons that readers turn to memoir is to watch the writer reevaluate his past and engage in a kind of conversation between his past and present selves.”

As for the ending of your story? “A well made ending is a new beginning,” Handler says, quoting writer Rebecca McClanahan, who calls endings “openings,” places where you decide who you have become, and what your next chapter might be. 

Debby Bull says that her canning experience may have been “a strange path out of the woods of despair,” but that “when it was over, the jars covered all the counter tops, and I knew I could live through this.” At the heart of Braving the Fire lies a similar assurance: “The panic and sorrow that swirled in me,” Handler writes, “belonged on the page now, no longer in my throat.” To the reader just starting the journey, she passes the baton by way of a virtual notebook inscribed with these words of hope: Not lost, but found.

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Handler will teach a free workshop on writing about loss at 11 a.m., Saturday, March 15, at the Decatur Library Auditorium, located at 215 Sycamore St., in Decatur, GA. Call (404) 370-8450, Ext. 2225, or go here for more info.

She’ll also conduct a workshop, “Writing the Tough Stuff,” from 5–7 p.m. on Saturday, March 29 at the Book Exchange, 2932 Canton Rd, Marietta, GA, (770) 427-4848. Get more info here.

Read an excerpt from Braving the Fire.

You can listen to Debby Bull read the opening chapter of Blue Jelly here, and read a review of it here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (photo Ivara Esege)

In the past year, I’ve stuck pretty close to reposting reviews on this blog that have already run in the paper, but from now on I hope to include some books that fall outside my AJC niche (Southern writers and writing). I’d planned to wait and review these two titles separately, but since they’re so timely, thought I’d stick with shorter previews instead.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, has an upcoming reading/signing in town this coming Thursday (see info below); her book has just been released in paperback. Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena offers much insight into Russia’s recent posturing in Crimea, bordering Ukraine. Both novels came out last year and met with rave reviews. They more than live up to the hype.

Confession: I am still finishing Americanah (Knopf). But with only 78 pages left to go, I can safely say that it’s the story of a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who immigrates to the U.S., and after a series of problematical and even traumatic attempts to land a job, eventually finds employment as a nanny. Soon, she begins to write a blog about what it’s like to be black in America—not just speaking as a non-American Black (NAB), but also weighing in on the predicament of American blacks (AB) and whites who so often overcompensate for their unspoken racism.

 “Dear Non-American Black,” begins one of her blog posts, “when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. … And admit it—you say ‘I’m not black’ only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say ‘Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad’? I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.” 

As she gains a better understanding of the culture and how things work, Ifemelu gives advice as well:

“Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say ‘It’s just like when I ….’”

The title, Americanah, is Nigerian slang for someone who immigrates to the U.S., picks up an accent and affects American ways, and then returns home. That vulnerability to a new country is part of what makes Adichie’s novel so very likeable. The characters are vividly drawn—human and vulnerable, scared and prickly, smart and passionate. It’s likely I’ve read it so slowly because I don’t want to leave their world—which is such a wise and funny commentary on mine—behind.

Much of the conversation takes place in the African-owned hair salon in scruffy Trenton, NJ, where Ifemelu, who lives in affluent Princeton (which happens to be my hometown), goes in order to have her hair properly braided. The stylists there, who dish about marriage, immigration, their husbands and children, have adapted to their new country, as seen in this scene in which a customer objects to a braid.

“No problem. I will do it again,” Mariama said. She was agreeable and smooth-tongued, but Ifemelu could tell that she thought her customer was a troublemaker, and there was nothing wrong with the cornrow, but this was a part of her new American self, this fervor of customer service, this shiny falseness of surfaces, and she had accepted it, embraced it. When the customer left, she might shrug out of that self and say something to [the other stylists] about Americans, how spoiled and childish and entitled they were, but when the next customer came, she would become, again, a faultless version of her American self.”

In a parallel narrative, back home in Nigeria, Ifemelu’s college boyfriend, Obinze, is also trying to immigrate to the U.S. He gets as far as London, where he lives under an assumed identity, “invisibly, his existence like an erased pencil sketch,” afraid of every one in authority he sees, desperately trying to arrange a marriage of convenience in order to secure permanent papers. In addition to being a novel of ideas about race and identity, Americanah is a tender love story that follows Ifemelu and Obinze as they drift apart and then back together.

Adichie will read from and sign her novel at 7 p.m., this Thursday, March 6 at the First Baptist Church of Decatur, 308 Clairmont Ave., Decatur, 404-373-1653, http://www.georgiacenterforthebook.org/Events/show.php?id=658.

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In a recent Q&A, Anthony Marra explained the origins of his award-winning debut novel—he studied abroad in St. Petersburg during his junior year of college. “War journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya had recently been assassinated; wounded veterans of the Chechen Wars trawled the metro cars for alms; street gangs routinely attacked people from the Northern Caucasus. Yet as an American I knew little about Chechnya.”

Two things up front about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth/Random House): One, it’s the human face of Chechnya’s two wars, and will tell you much of what you need to know about Putin’s current stance (and what might be expected to happen as a result) on Crimea. Second, it’s now available in paperback. Okay, three: Not only was it longlisted for the National Book Award, it also won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.

In it, a young girl from a rural village is rescued after the “disappearing” of her father, by a family friend who spirits her away to a bombed-out hospital in a nearby town. A timeline that spans 1994 to 2004 provides the loose framework for a series of narratives delivered by six people, which piece together the history that eventually ties them all together, forming the constellation of the title. The hospital setting and occasional glimpses of a happier time counterbalance the grim realities facing the characters, and allow Marra to focus on healing and repair rather than terror and hopelessness.

978-0-7704-3640-7.JPGYou can read an insightful review of it here, in which writer Delia Falconer examines what happens when art trumps reality. I agree with Falconer’s criticism—that Marra superimposes art onto life in ways occasionally “anesthetic, sparing us from the hurts and despairs the novel chronicles so well”—but disagree that this detracts from its final effect. If, as Falconer points out, the reality as described in Politskovskaya’s far more brutal telling, A Small Corner of Hell, is unbearable, then Marra’s book triumphs for being not only readable, but beautifully so.

More about Politskovskaya here and about A Small Corner of Hell here.

Long Man, by Amy Greene

No doubt when North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe famously warned that “you can’t go home again,” he didn’t mean “because your home town might disappear off the face of the map.”

Yet that’s exactly what happens in Amy Greene’s much anticipated second novel, Long Man (Knopf, $25.95), a story about a handful of characters facing the end of their 150-year-old way of life.

Like Ron Rash, Greene has cultivated her own corner of the universe, a place in which people have been tied to the land as far back as they can remember. She writes about an American culture on the brink of extinction—the folkways, kinship, and sense of place once common to East Tennessee, where Greene grew up.

Greene introduced this territory in her first book, the gothic, brooding Bloodroot (2010), with a tale of an Appalachian family that shared mysterious powers handed down for generations, a “touch” that could be used for good or bad. Their spirituality, based on an age-old reliance on nature and ancestral beliefs, collided with the soullessness of the outside world and in the end, survived only in memory and story.

With Long Man, Greene leaves folk magic behind in favor of a realistic, historically accurate portrait of a doomed community during the summer of 1936. At the height of the Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority has teamed up with the local power company for a land grab of epic proportions, relocating everyone in the fictional town of Yuneetah to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

The waters of the dam’s reservoir will eventually swallow the town. “By the end of the year lagoons would be made from clefts in the mountains. Fish would swim in dens once inhabited by foxes.” But not everyone has agreed to leave.

Greene folds the events of the book into a taut three days seen through the eyes of several members of the community, including Annie Clyde Dodson, a young wife and mother unwilling to leave her farm; Amos, a vengeful troublemaker fond of defying authority and righting injustice; Sam Washburn, the power company’s agent; and 85-year-old Beulah, the town’s midwife, healer and fortune teller.

As the floodwaters spread, Washburn arrives to grapple with Annie, who refuses to relocate and keeps chasing off the authorities with her shotgun. She and her three-year-old daughter, Gracie, have stayed behind while her husband, James, has begun the process of moving the family to Detroit, where he’s already found work.

When Annie’s little girl suddenly disappears, suspicion falls directly on Amos, whose agenda is questionable, his history with the community contentious. Torrential rains add to the suspense, as the river is rising and only a handful of people remain to help search for the child.

On the face of it, the race to find Gracie is the ticking clock that drives Long Man to its dramatic end. But the real story here is the clash between tradition, personified by the as-yet untamed river—its life-giving properties embodied in Annie, its inevitable destruction brewing in Amos—and the sweeping changes that promise an easier, better life.

Woven into the novel are flashbacks—to Annie’s childhood and relationship with James, her aunt Silver’s romances with Amos and the sheriff, and Amos’ long-ago rescue by Beulah, his adoptive mother—that capture the harsh realities of rural life and how they shaped and sometimes broke generations of dignified, often misunderstood people.

The old ways, Greene tells us, can be both comfort and trap, curse or blessing, and she looks at both sides with sensitivity and an understanding born of experience—Greene’s grandfather was a farmer, her parents left home for more lucrative factory work.

“The river had formed them,” Beulah observes of her neighbors, “as sure as it had the land. The young might be able to take other shapes” but not those who’d spent their lives there. “There was no more give to them, worn stiff as hanks of rawhide. It might be hard to love a place that had used them up, but it was what they knew.”

In language as unadorned and lovely as a country quilt, Greene marks what will be lost. Long stretches of luminous prose and interior monologues convey a solitude broken only by birdsong, evoke the flow of the titular river, and invite the reader deeply into the seclusion of the valley and the mountains above.

“The end of summer was near and then autumn. But this season the stinkbugs and crickets wouldn’t come into the houses for warmth. No leaves would blow down the road on the fall winds, no apples would harden under the frost. Pawpaws would go to ruin at the bottom of the lake with nobody around to taste the sweet mash of their middles.”

Maybe Wolfe was right. But there are other ways of going home, and Long Man takes us there in this remarkable love letter to a forgotten time and place, still shimmering at the bottom of that lake.

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Read an excerpt from Long Man here, and learn more about Amy Greene’s inspiration for her work here. For Largehearted Boy, Greene talked about the book and the music that inspired her while writing it.

New Year, New Books

This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)

Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)

Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.

Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.

Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.

Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.

Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.

Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.

Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)

Tom Robbins, by Stuart Isett

Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”

Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”

Want more? Here are my favorites from 2013. Or you can try the Millions—their list of most anticipated upcoming books is one of my favorites.

Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) once again explores themes of race and women’s rights in The Invention of Wings (Viking, $27.95), a powerful story of rebellion and heroism inspired by real-life 19th-century American abolitionist, writer, and suffragist Sarah Grimké.

Set in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1800s, much of the novel is based on actual events and historical figures. Sarah, the daughter of a prominent judge, grew up in an aristocratic, slave-holding family surrounded by privilege. She and her younger sister, Angelina, would eventually break with the family to become outspoken pioneers of the abolitionist movement and early champions of women’s rights.

The novel opens on the day 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Hetty as a “waiting maid” and playmate. Sarah, who has already begun to express her lifelong hatred of slavery, tries to refuse the gift, even writing out a statement freeing the girl, which her parents ignore.

Hetty’s sass and spirit — much of it learned from her rebellious mother, the Grimkés’ prized seamstress — highjacks the story from the minute she opens her mouth. Like Sarah, Hetty refuses to tow the line at an early age, a trait expressed in the name her mother gave her at birth: Handful.

“I was a handful. That’s not how I got my name, though …. Master Grimké named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful.”

A first-person narrative, split between Sarah and Handful, draws us into their two contrasting worlds and the experiences they first share as friends and confidants. But when the precocious Sarah defies the rules and teaches her maid to read and write, their unequal punishments lead Sarah to make a promise that drives the plot forward for three decades.

Sarah, a handful in her own modest way, comes to life through Kidd’s vivid reimagining of the daily, domestic details that define her life: churchgoing, dress fittings, parties, beaus and her all-too-brief study of Latin and the law. The effort Sarah and her sister make to escape the roles they’re expected to play — dutiful daughters, wives and mothers — parallel the far more dangerous yearning for freedom felt by Handful and her mother, Charlotte, and the risks they take to pursue it.

The urban slavery seen in the novel bears little resemblance to the usual white-columned mansions, endless cotton fields and slave cabins associated with the pre-Civil War era. Most of the events in The Invention of Wings take place in Charleston, where “the slaves dominated the streets, doing their owners’ bidding, shopping the market, delivering messages and invitations for teas and dinner parties. Some were hired out and trekked back and forth to work… You could see them gathered at street corners, wharves and grog shops.”

Harriet Powers’ great Pictorial Quilt (ca. 1895-1898)

Handful and Charlotte’s superior dressmaking skills, much in demand in town, reinforce the message that enslavement was not the equivalent of helplessness: Kidd is overturning some stubborn stereotypes here. Moreover, Charlotte’s autobiographical story quilt — based on the quilts of Harriet Powers, born a slave in Georgia — is an example of her will to document the truth of her past, to have a voice even though she was forbidden to read and write.

Despite the brutal punishments awaiting any disobedience, Charlotte and her daughter never accept the limits of their enslavement. “You do your rebellions any way you can,” Handful says, and to that end, they make their own quilts out of dress scraps stolen from their mistress, sneak into town to earn their own money selling piecework and eventually get involved in a dangerous plot led by the historical Denmark Vesey, a free black who fomented revolution in 1822.

Sarah and her sister Angelina, on the other hand, though they will later become “perhaps the most radical females to come out of the antebellum South,” have few options as young women. Sarah “was trapped same as me,” Handful notes, telling her mistress, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

As in Kidd’s previous work, mothers and daughters play key roles in the story. In the face of dehumanizing treatment, Charlotte teaches her daughter a fundamental lesson in civil disobedience, demonstrating that they should never “bow and scrape” to anyone. Sarah’s mother passes the torch of a different tradition: one of helplessness, obedience, restriction and passivity. “Every girl,” she tells Sarah, “must have ambition knocked out of her for her own sake.”

Early in the book, Handful’s mother tells her that their people once knew how to fly, that her shoulder blades are all that’s left of her wings. “One day,” she assures Handful, “you gon get ’em back.” The remarkable courage and hope found in The Invention of Wings is a reminder that we all have those wings — and tells us a lot more about how we got them.

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You can find out more about the Grimké sisters here, and more about the research behind the novel here.

A version of this review is online at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Guests on Earth, Lee Smith

It’s the spring of 1937 when Evalina Toussaint, the narrator of Lee Smith‘s Guests On Earth (Algonquin) first catches sight of Zelda Fitzgerald, wearing black tights and ballet slippers and smoking a cigarette, on the grounds of Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C.

By then, Zelda had been married for 16 years to Scott, who was so infatuated with the Montgomery belle when they first met that he wrote the same line to her over and over, “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers.”

Never having been imprisoned, Zelda found Scott’s fantasy annoying, never dreaming that she was soon to embark on a life so decadent and reckless it would leave her permanently unhinged, shut away for the rest of her life in clinics and mental institutions throughout Europe and the U.S.

Highland was to be her final stop. In 1948, a fire ripped through the top floor of the hospital’s central building while fire fighters, alerted too late, watched the building burn to the ground. Zelda was one of the nine women who perished in that locked ward. Continue Reading »

In the final chapter of Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury), she writes about one of the last times she saw her brother, Joshua, who died in 2000. They drive along the outskirts of DeLisle, Mississippi, where they grew up together, listening to Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You.”

“This reminds me of us,” Joshua tells her, singing along to the lyrics that celebrate the rapper’s impoverished childhood, the importance of family, his mother’s love. In the song, Ghostface warns his listeners never to forget the past:

Because see, that’s the child I was

What made me the man I am today

See cause if you forget where you come from

You’re never gonna make it where you’re goin,

Because you lost the reality of yourself

So take one stroll through your mind

And see what you will find

And you’ll see a whole universe all over again.

Thirteen years later, Ward decides it’s time to take that stroll.

Now 36, Ward, who won a National Book Award in 2011 for her novel, Salvage the Bones, returns to the Gulf Coast with a memoir so honest and raw it sometimes takes your breath away.

Steeped in the imagery of battle, Men We Reaped centers around five young men — Ward’s brother, her cousin and three friends — who died within a four-year period, victims of a perfect storm Ward calls, variously, “a plague,” “this epidemic,” and “a great darkness bearing down on our lives that no one acknowledges.”

One kills himself, another is shot. One dies when his car collides with a train, another of a heart attack. Joshua is hit and killed by a drunk driver who never pays a penny of the fine his sentence stipulates, who serves three out of only five years.

To make sense of these tragedies, Ward looks for answers in the history of her town, her community, and her family. Beginning with “the distant past” when her great-grandparents first settled in DeLisle, she alternates between a chronological account of her life and portraits of the five men, starting with the most recent death, in 2004, and working backward to her brother’s. Continue Reading »

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