Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share.

It’s all about the stories

Next to Hamilton, the toughest ticket to get in the U.S. right now is admittance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to Dan, I had tickets for this Tuesday and headed down with a small group of friends. We each followed our own path through the museum, checking in periodically and meeting up for lunch. This proved to be a great plan to get the most out of the few hours we had.

Photo by Elisabeth K. Boas

The museum has two different paths a visitor can follow: the three-level underground history galleries accessed from a single room-sized elevator, which often has a lengthy wait; or the culture and community galleries which each occupies a floor above. My story-gathering began as soon as I entered the culture gallery and noticed the cast iron skillet and sea green coffee cups that were part of many kitchens. Next to me was a woman who was struck by the inclusion of the skillet as well. And so the conversation began. She mentioned that the cast iron skillet was the one thing she really wanted when a family home was disassembled. Her grandmother used it for fried chicken and cornbread. I shared that my mother’s brisket pot held similarly memories.

And then we kept talking. About growing up in communities where there were people of different religions and ethnicities and children absorbed aspects of these cultures because it was everywhere.  We spoke about our surprise when we  each entered communities that were less accepting and racial differences created real social barriers. And we talked about where we live in now and how difficult it is to comprehend how far backward we’ve gone as a country in understanding and accepting one another. Sharon lives in New Jersey and was spending two days at the African American museum. She came with a friend who didn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum. So we talked about her coming back to DC and going there together. Two women of a certain age, one African American, the other Jewish American. Both American. Thanks, Sharon. You made my day.

There were other conversations – with a Vietnam veteran from Baltimore; a woman whose family has owned a cottage in an African-American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a century; and a woman who wishes her son (who was with her) could understand the emotions and importance of Freedom Summer. Each conversation enriched the experience.

When we did enter the floors devoted to the history of African Americans in the US the experience was very different. The artifacts and explanatory signs are
intended to deepen the superficial knowledge that most people have, particularly about the slave trade and the early US economy, and the role of slaves and free blacks in the military from colonial times through the Civil War.

There is a sanctity about the early rooms. By carefully interspersing quotations and artifacts the very personal toll of the Middle Passage is brought to life. The number of slaves captured in Africa by each of the various colonial powers is listed but seeing the ship names, the dates of passage, and the number of slaves at the start and end of the voyage brings the horror of that information to a new level. How can feeling beings put people in shackles and imprison them and name the ship “Happy” or “Excellent”?

A large area, open through all three levels of the history exhibit focuses on the unresolved conflict of “liberty and justice for all” and people as property. The backdrop to a statue of Jefferson is large stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Once again, it is the details of display that connect the visitor in ways that haven’t been done before.

I’m already planning my next visit to the museum. There is so much to see. But since I always look for a book connection wherever I go, here are two:

  • Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, a novel about the Middle Passage and life for a bright, accomplished slave and later, free woman, in the 18th century. A bit about the book and the TV miniseries here.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award-winning historical study of the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrial north during much of the 20th century.

A Pop-Up City and Women Helped Win WWII

  • imgresThe Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: In 1943, part of the Tennessee Valley was transformed into a top secret factory town to support the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan’s narrative captures the little-known story of the women, predominantly non-scientists, who were responsible for the machinery that created the fuel for the atomic bomb.
  • Genre: Narrative history
  • Locale: Oak Ridge, TN
  • Time: 1943 – 45
  • Read this to learn about an extraordinary military and social experiment that created a 70,000 resident city from scratch for a single purpose.

While working on another project, Denise Kiernan saw a 1944 photo of women working in front of large machines in Oak Ridge, TN. James Edward Westcott, a government photographer, documented the building and operations of the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), the “business” portion of the city built for the war effort in the Tennessee Valley.

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Out of nowhere, government officials evicted families from their homes and farms with often less than 2 weeks to move and limited compensation. Kiernan details the massive physical labor involved in building a city from nothing and the lengths required to provide labor to meet needs from construction, manufacturing, quality assurance, human resources, commissaries, medical clinics and everything else for an “instant city” of almost 70,000. But it wasn’t all work, the community had bowling alleys, tennis courts, and movie theaters. Hard to imagine that those inside never talked about their work with their co-workers and neighbors, and those outside the gates knew nothing at all.

Focusing on a number of women whose letters and interviews give flavor to the history, Kiernan parses the hierarchical society that was built. The workers came from those that were displaced, people that worked the cotton fields and coal miners from Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Women educated as scientists often worked in administrative positions while lesser educated men supervised. Both because it was accepted and to placate the political figures in Tennessee, discrimination against African Americans was particularly egregious. While other married workers were provided housing options for the family, African American husbands and wives were separated and lived in single-gender huts. Their children were not permitted, in part because a separate school system would have been required.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Any infractions were severely punished, often with summary dismissal. The lack of information about the undertaking created great resentment in Knoxville, the nearest large community. People could not understand how train and truckloads of material continuously entered the facility but nothing ever came out.imgres-2

Interwoven with the accounts of the growing community and its work is information about the raw material, Tubealloy, that was THE SECRET. The layers of secrecy surrounding the decisions and those involved is seen in the shadowy information available even seventy years later. The key figures of the Manhattan Project periodically are mentioned early on. Those living and working at CEW were completely unaware of the scope or magnitude of the combined effort.

Key to bringing this project to life are the photographs of Ed Westcott, whose sole responsibility was to provide a photographic record of the entire project. He alone had access to everything from the operating facilities to the hospital to the garbage collection trucks.  His work is maintained in the National Archive and on a website, The Photography of Ed Westcott.

In my view, there is magic in uncovering untold history. If you have ever wondered how the US pulled off the development of the atomic bomb, here it is. And the story that is told about the women and men who operated in total secrecy “to help end the war” really is important in understanding the war being fought on the homefront in the later stages of WWII.

 

Kelli Estes tackles 1880s racism and violence

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  • Unknown-3The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (Sourcebooks, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Parallel stories of a young Chinese woman in the 1880s a modern young woman,  determined to find her calling are brought together at her family’s century-old island home.
  • Genre: Fiction with historical underpinnings
  • Locale: Seattle and nearby islands
  • Time: 1886 -1895 and the present
  • Read this fictional account to spark your interest in the truth about the expulsion of the Chinese in the northwest.

In the 1840s the U.S. was in desperate need of laborers to support the mining camps and build the railroads.  Chinese men were welcomed along the West Coast for this express purpose. So long as they were not integrated into the communities and didn’t take “American” jobs, they were tolerated. By the early 1880s organized efforts began to undermine their ability to work and to send them back to China, preferably at their own expense.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk opens on one of the most horrific days in Seattle’s history. Armed mobs are entering Chinese enclaves, kidnapping the residents and looting their possessions before taking them to the docks. Mei Lien, her father and grandmother operated a small store. Understanding the danger for young Chinese women, her father has had her live as a young boy and kept her by her grandmother’s side and in the store. After a violent confrontation, they are placed on a ship, allegedly to be sent to China. Late that evening, Mei Lien overhears the ship’s captain planning to throw all the people overboard to their deaths. After sharing this information with her father, he decides she must be saved and pushes her over himself, in the hope that she can swim to shore and be saved.

Inara Erickson is the youngest child of a prominent Seattle shipping family. Having just graduated from college, her father is “helping” her find employment. A family tragedy kept Inara away from Orcas Island for many years. Her aunt’s  death brought her back to the one place she felt at home. Rather than follow her father’s path, she undertook to turn the family homestead into a bed and breakfast. While uncovering the original staircase, one tread was unlike the others. Underneath the board was an intricately embroidered silk sleeve. Finding the sleeve begins her road to discovery about family, history, honesty and forgiveness.

As she went  into the water, Mei Lien was seen by the local postman and fisherman. Joseph rescued her and brought her to his small cabin, nursing her back to health. Though skeptical about her story, the murmurings among his neighborhoods and in town showed her concerns to be warranted.

Not surprisingly, Kelli Estes weaves these stories together to create this novel. Mei Lien’s story is fascinating and tragic. Her isolation as the only survivor from her family and prey to the racism in the community is heartbreaking. Island life was difficult at that time under the best of circumstances. Inara’s story has the clichéd elements of true love at risk due to family skeletons. But by having the modern story Estes is able to provide broader historical details on Mei Lien’s life through Inara’s research using the vast resources of the internet. The present day story also offers the opportunity for restitution and reconciliation.

Kelli Estes deserves a lot of credit for bringing the anti-Chinese riots and expulsions to a wider audience. Mei Lien, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, is a wonderful character I won’t soon forget.

 

‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ deserves a place on your nightstand

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  • Unknown-5Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Mary, a privileged Londoner, volunteers for the war effort. Cleave brings to life the personal effects of the Blitz and the war’s early campaigns on Mary and those closest to her. The imperfections of the characters bring depth to the story.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: London, France, Malta, Algeria
  • Time: 1938-42
  • Read this for a glimpse at the early British involvement in WWII. Cleave takes on class distinctions, racism and the high personal toll on those on the home front as well as on the battlefield.

Before, life had been a tradition, a tendency to forgiveness, a regression to the mean… A child was lost as easily as a shilling. And once one had understood that, though one’s heart continued to beat, one was never entirely alive again. She knew, now, why her father had not spoken of the last war, nor Alistair of this. It was hardly fair on the living. (p.268)

Chris Cleave made his mark on US readers when Little Bee was published here in 2009. In his latest novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, class, racism and power again play major roles in the story. Mary North is a daughter of London’s elite but with a mind of her own. When war is declared she enlists, only to find herself assigned to help ferry children from London to the countryside to escape the expected bombardment. For some of the children, life in the country is not meant to be, and several end up as the only pupils in an urban school with Mary as their teacher.

Elsewhere in London, a school administrator and an art conservator share a garret apartment. Alistair, the conservator enlists and is sent to France; Tom is put in charge of Mary’s school. As the bombing of London begins the men’s letters tell the story of the great changes occurring in Europe. Mary is far from the classical teacher and reaches out to her small band of students, each of whom would stand out in a regular classroom. She takes particular interest in Zachary, a bright African-Amerian student who is unable to read and has a tendency to run at the least provocation. As Mary and Tom develop a personal relationship, Mary’s advocacy for Zachary is a point of contention.

When Alistair returns disheartened from France before being posted to Malta, Tom, Mary and Mary’s friend, Hilda, plan an evening out to raise his spirits. The evening ends in a shelter during a bombing, with Mary following him above ground to turn over his duffel before he rejoins his regiment. This brief, chaste encounter changes all their lives.Unknown

As the war continues, roles change as does the landscape of London. The foursome is wounded physically and emotionally. Bonds are broken. The weak show resiliency and the strong learn that no one is immune from the ravages of despair.

What differentiates Cleave’s story is his careful picking at society’s prejudices. Racism, the power of rank and class, friendship and familial allegiance are all intrinsically part of the narrative in this rich historical novel.