Living with the Klan and other racists

When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown

r/suggestmeabook: I want to feel what it’s like to live in small town Georgia in 1936 as an 18-year-old Black girl.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by NetGalley

Depression Era American South

From the publisher: The summer of 1936 in Parsons, Georgia, is unseasonably hot, and Opal Pruitt can sense a nameless storm coming. She hopes this foreboding feeling won’t overshadow her upcoming eighteenth birthday or the annual Founder’s Day celebration in just a few weeks. But when the Ku Klux Klan descends on Opal’s neighborhood of Colored Town, the tight-knit community is shaken in every way.

One of the wonderful things about great fiction is that it allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes in a way that few other experiences can. Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down is just such a book, and should be required reading for every American. But it’s not just a great book about race and the challenges faced by Black Americans both then and now, it’s a great coming-of-age story for anyone.

Every girl I knew, Colored or white, was waiting for the day she could become a wife or a mother. That was all we knew. That was all we had ever seen.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

However, I’m going to talk mostly about the first part, about how When Stars Rain Down gave me new ideas, contexts, and imaginative reframings about being Black in the South. The lyrical ode to Colored Town was a perspective changer, as the protagonist, Opal Pruitt, doesn’t see it as exclusion but as a retreat from the demands of Jim Crow, even though the woman she works for, and her household, are “good” white people.

On any given night you might hear soft quarrels, the sounds of lovemaking, or the giggles and laughter that were just natural sounds to hear among those of us who lived in Colored Town. Not one of us was rich, but we had all that we ever needed, and that was each other.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

This is one of the questions Opal has to answer for herself: are there actually any whites who will choose right over white when the issue involves a Black person? The illustration of the well-meaning white girl trying to help but not listening is a lesson for anyone who hasn’t lived the life of the protagonists but thinks she knows best how to help.

I looked at her, really looked at her, and I could tell she was sorry. I had never experienced that before. Most white folks, especially rich white folks, took us for granted and never really thought about our feelings.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

I’m not sure there’s a single movie that captured for me the visceral sense of waiting for the Klan to strike like this lovely book. The oppressive environment, the strain of the impending raid, the deep internal struggles of how best to deal with the Klan, the fear of both what the Klan might do and how to limit repercussions of how the Black community responds to the Klan: all of these are given visceral reality.

I guess if you live in a world where angry white men can come out of the blue and burn down your property without any fear of payback, there is no normal. There’s just getting by from day to day.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

The cameo appearance by Satchel Paige was a fun addition, giving a glimpse of how important these early barrier-busting athletes and were to their communities. Jackson-Brown’s use of concrete details makes him (and, indeed, all of the characters) breathe on the page.

He liked sitting on the porch playing the spirituals, but he made it very clear that he thought God was something white folks made up to keep Colored folks in line.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

Although the book echoes issues and attitudes still with us to this day, it is firmly situated in the period. When Stars Rain Down presents the world of Black Southerners living in the Jim Crow era unflinchingly, showing both the joy and pain of that life, offering no easy answers, and illustrating the reach of history.

Money, sex, and silent movies

Scandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced murder mystery revolving around a rising starlet and investigated by an English fish-out-of-water.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 240

Series: Silver Screen Mysteries

Publisher: Severn House

Golden Age of Hollywood, the Silent Years

ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher: 1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow Emma Blackstone has come to love her new employer, glamorous movie-star Kitty Flint—even if her late husband’s sister is one of the worst actresses she’s ever seen. Looking after Kitty and her three adorable Pekinese dogs isn’t work Emma dreamed of, but Kitty rescued her when she was all alone in the world.

I’ve read Barbara Hambly’s books since the 80’s, so I was thrilled to see that she has started a new series set in pre-sound Hollywood. Her fictional biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, The Emancipator’s Wife, is one I’ve recommended repeatedly, but it’s a much more serious book than this frothy and fun Hollywood mystery. Apparently Bride of the Rat God (one of Hambly’s novels I hadn’t read) has many of the same features (the dogs and the British war widow, same time period, but different names), but I can’t speak to how much overlap there is between the two.

Although the Hays Code wouldn’t come about until 1934, the specter of censorship and scandal were haunting actors in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle trial. The studios weren’t quite as affected in that all publicity was good publicity. So when the (former?) husband of Camille de la Rose, née Kitty Flint, is found shot dead in her trailer, her burgeoning career is threatened, even if she is oblivious to that threat, and her assistant, Emma Blackstone, is determined to clear her name.

The writing is clear and crisp, and the pace fast. Hambly’s ability to sketch memorable characters is at the fore, and there’s never a point where I had to suspend disbelief because of an improbable plot turn—she always does a great job of setting the groundwork so that the turns seem reasonable in the context of the story world. The characters are so believable that I had to double-check that they were all fictional (there is a Foremost Productions, but it wasn’t started until 1990). The larger context of the period, though, is dead on; every time I had a “wait a minute, is that right?” moment, Hambly had her facts in a row.

Her months in Hollywood had given her a front row seat on an astounding display of the misuse of power, and there far worse things to spend money on than fountains of bootleg champagne at one’s parties or solid gold door-handles for one’s car.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

And that accuracy is pretty important in that there is a delightful running commentary about the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood. The protagonist, Emma Blackstone, is fluent in Latin and perhaps Greek as well, having gone to Oxford and assisted her father’s research. (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a classical Greek quotation in a light-hearted murder mystery.) As a historical fiction reader who is also a fan of straight history, it tickled me to have the character roll her eyes at the Queen of Babylon going to Rome as it did in the script being filmed in the background of the story.

A wrangler passed across the square, leading four horses in what Hollywood fondly believed to be Roman saddles (meaning blankets strapped over English saddles, with anachronistic stirrups visibly dangling).

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Moreover, Emma Blackstone works well as the voice of the story, told in a close third person, as she’s not really a part of the Hollywood scene, smart enough to be useful, and open-minded enough to accept differences without losing sight of how those differences would play in Oxford. Zal Rokatansky, cameraman and love interest, is the kind of reliable, kind man that everyone needs in their life, and I was delighted to have a couple where the woman was taller than the man. The height difference is noted, but it’s not an issue, which is charming.

Zal was teaching her to wield chopsticks, one of several skills—along with mixing cocktails and tallying baseball scores—which she had not expected to learn in America.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Then there’s the ditzy Kitty Flint, sister of Blackstone’s deceased husband, who is juggling men left and right, including the rather intimidating studio chief Frank Pugh and the wealthy Ambrose Crain. Kitty is one of those people you become fond of despite yourself, as she can be thoughtless and self-absorbed, but she has a generous and kind streak that redeems her.

“But would any of them,” pursued Emma, “Actually kill a man to get you out of the way”

“Gloria Swanson,” replied Kitty promptly, “would kill a man who beat her to a taxi-cab.”

“Don’t be silly, Kitty,” put in Zal. “Swanson never takes taxis.”

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

The minor characters are fun too, particularly the foul-mouthed director Madge Burdon and the polite bootlegger Tony Cornero. Each character introduced feels well-developed and authentic rather then just fulfilling a plot point, from the Hedda Hopper type and the jealous actress trying to climb to the top over Kitty’s back.

Well, I suppose if Odysseus could get information by giving libations to the spirits in Hell, it’s no surprise it works here as well.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Readers of cozy mysteries will probably enjoy this as long as they don’t have an issue with salty language; that’s the only thing that made me rate this an R, as there was nothing particularly gory or oppressive about the novel.

His glance was like a smiling kiss, and her eyes received it like one, before she hurried down the thirty marble steps to the 2000 square feet of laboriously imported sand.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Scandal in Babylon forecasts a wonderful series from Hambly, and I can’t wait to see these characters again!

Faith and death for the nonreligious

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I need some comfort about death and dying, but I no longer believe in a God preached by a mainstream religion.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 390

Publisher: Tor Books

ARC provided by NetGalley

Optimistic fantasy

From the publisher: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead. And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.

When I was eleven and afraid of death, I read C.S. Lewis’s The Final Battle, and that gave me a positive way to look at death. Now, almost fifty years later, I no longer have the faith of that preteen, but TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door has given me a comforting book about death and dying which is just as much about how to live, and it is comforting even though I no longer believe in a hereafter.

There are little deaths, because that’s what grief is.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Klune’s vast gift for empathy and kindness infuses his books with an optimism that does not overlook the pains and perils of life; rather, Klune celebrates the possibilities of change and growth within clearly flawed people, and he’s fast becoming one of my favorite authors. In Under the Whispering Door, Wallace, the protagonist, starts as one of those people you love to hate: a workaholic unmotivated by even the slightest degree of concern for his fellow man (or woman)—the worst kind of lawyer. While the losses in life were insufficient for him to make any changes, the loss of control in death makes him face what kind of person he was.

All that work, all that he’d done, the life he’d built. Had it mattered? What had been the point of anything?

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Don’t get me wrong; there’s no unrealistic, cloyingly sweet arc here. It’s all very grounded in the real world, and there’s a lot of pain felt by various characters that can be achingly familiar. However, it’s a hopeful world, where change is still possible, a wonderful vision in our increasingly polarized society. Part of what makes it work is Hugo, the ferryman, an empathetic soul, paired with an irascible grandfather, so they complement each other nicely, as well as the spunky Mei, who does not suffer fools.

Every time Wallace opened his mouth to say something, anything, he stopped himself. It all felt…trivial. Unimportant. And so he said nothing at all, wondering why he felt the constant need to fill the quiet.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Then there’s the view of death and dying itself. While I’m clearly not saying anything Klune propounds in his fantasy is literally true, the ideas behind them often resonate with me, providing a lot of comfort. I particularly like the view of faith, which has nothing to do with the kind of faith preached to me for years, but a more accessible faith that reflects experience.

There’s no one way to go about this, no uniform rules that can be applied to every single person like you who comes through my doors. That wouldn’t make sense because you’re not like everyone else, much like they’re not you.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

And, of course, it’s just a damn good story, with love, loss, and longing (hmm—didn’t plan on alliteration, but I’m going to leave it) all written in lucid prose with a pace that made me want to keep reading even when I had other things to do.

Whoever told you that you were funny obviously lied and you should feel bad about it.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

TJ Klune is a master of the optimistic fantasy, but never in ways I expect it to be, and never in contexts where I expect optimism, and it’s a gift to every reader, and Under the Whispering Door is a book I expect to reread many times.