Promise – by Rachel Eliza Griffiths – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

Note: I received early access to this manuscript in exchange for writing an impartial review. Thank you netgalley and Random House. Publication Date: July 11, 2023.

A powerful story of racism in 1950 America that starts quite slowly and later turns into an action-packed page turner. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

Above all, it’s a story of the power of family — regardless of whether that tie is created by blood, chosen with love, or served up by community. In PROMISE, author and poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths takes us to a small town in Maine in the mid-1950s, where she introduces us to three families:
• The Kindreds – a Black family of four, full of love and focused on education as the way out and up. Their father is the only Black teacher at the local school. Teenage sisters Ezra and Cinthy are central characters, with the novel written from Cinthy’s point of view. 
• The Junketts – a second Black family of six. Their father is custodian at the same school. 
• The Scaggs – a poor and troubled White family whose only child, Ruby, is friends with Ezra and Cinthy.
As the only two Black families in town, ostracized by the locals, the Kindreds and Junketts are naturally bonded tightly to one other. 

At the start, it appears the book will be a coming of age story about three girls. But coming of age, it turns out, is quite a different experience depending on race. Ruby, as a white girl, is expected to grow to maturity, marry, and have a family. But the budding maturing (and beauty) of Ezra (with Cinthy close behind) means the start of unwanted attention from white men, along with new stereotypes about the sexuality of Black women. Both of which make white women VERY uncomfortable. This difference between the two races at puberty has a profound impact on the lives and friendship among Ezra, Cinthy, and Ruby.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Photo from her website

Unexpected events and many, many instances of ugly and overt racism soon take the book in surprising directions. And beside becoming a compelling story, I felt privileged to learn all the lovely ways the Black community supports and trusts its own. Within this world, deep belief in God, a strong, almost supernatural connection to long-gone ancestors, and a shared history and experience of the world connect people in a way I’ve never experienced. And feel envious of. 

The author has won several prizes for poetry. So the language she uses in this novel is often poetic. In a few places it felt a bit over the top, but that is a minimal criticism compared to the overwhelming positive feelings I am taking away. Especially about the resilience of humans facing extremely difficult circumstances.

More about the author, Rachel Eliza Giffiths.

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