As a lifelong rule follower, this represents a BIG departure for me. Although this book is volume 3 in a series of novels by Laila Ibrahim — I started with this one. And enjoyed it, without feeling I was missing much. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
It’s a novel with many layers, about the confluence of civil rights and women’s rights. At the center is the complex relationships among a group of women, about thirty years (1894) after the end of the American Civil War. Some are white, some are black. A few are former slaves.
Mattie, her daughter Jordan, and Jordan’s daughter Naomi help to tell the story of Black Americans at this period. Having left a plantation, moved to Virginia, then Chicago and later to Oakland — their story is one of nascent freedom — with the external world still limiting their choices and threatening their safety on a daily basis. At the novel’s beginning, Mattie is ill and approaching death.
Lisbeth and her daughter Sadie are white, though that does not guarantee happiness. Sadie is married to an affluent German immigrant with a controlling nature and is dealing with a history of failed pregnancies.
It’s the interweaving of all these stories that Ibrahim does so skillfully. All the relationships are multi-dimensional — full of love and loyalty, resentment and envy, dependence and ignorance. Yet these women wind up forming their own kind of family, across racial lines. One where they support one another during intense challenges.
There are a few historical figures and events that are part of the narrative — Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and the Pullman train strike. And many of the women in the story become deeply involved in the struggle to give women the vote. We, of course, know that winning this fight is still a generation away.
I found this a decidedly feminist book. Not so much because of the suffrage movement — but because, at its heart, it’s about the strength women have when they unite with and support one another. Yes, there are some male characters. But while we learn about additional dimensions of of a racially-divided society from them, they feel much less central.
My primary criticism of the book came near the end, where there are some “speeches” made by several of the main characters (both black and white), It felt to me like these characters I had come to know and love were suddenly standing on soap boxes in a public park pontificating. It felt clunky and obvious, like the author needed to be sure we got her points and just didn’t feel like it was true to the characters.
Overall, what you get from the novel is a sense of what the racial reality was at the end of the 19th century in the United States: how much (or how little) Black Americans had achieved with emancipation, how and where they were “allowed” to live and work, and the many ways in which white Americans continued to use their power to enforce segregation.
My recommendation would be to read the entire series. But unlike me, start from the beginning. I will probably go back to Ibrahim’s earlier books in this series, to learn more about this interesting and rich collection of characters.
More about the author, Laila Ibrahim.