Desert Isle Keeper
Wild Women and the Blues
Fans of historical fiction are in for a treat with Wild Women and the Blues, a dual timeline novel about Jazz Age Chicago with its beautiful, fun but dark and dangerous world of juice joints, dance girls and racketeering, and a young man searching for redemption in twenty-first century America.
Sawyer Hayes’ life changed in an instant. He was driving during the car accident in which his sister Azizi died and has been haunted by guilt – and her ghost – for the past year. He’s tired of mourning and longs for a return to normality. Since he’s a documentary film maker/student, normal for him would be to tell an important story of black history. He believes his grandmother’s memory box contains the key to doing just that, because within it he found pictures and a film reel which link 110-year-old Honoree Dalcour to the legendary black director/producer Oscar Micheaux. He’s not sure what the relationship between Honoree and his grandmother is but he knows his grandmother pays for Honoree’s care, which means he knows where she’s at, how to get access to her and that she’s still sharp as a tack. He’s hoping Honoree can fill in some of the gaps in the great man’s history and give Sawyer a thesis that will help him launch his career. All he has to do is get Honoree to agree to an interview.
Her response to that request: Why would I talk to you about my life? I don’t know you, and even if I did, I don’t tell my story to just any boy with long hair, who probably smokes weed. You wanna hear about me. You gotta tell me something about you. To make this worth my while.”
Honoree has packed her 110 years with a lot of living. Before she wound up in the retirement facility where she will spend her final days, she had been a queen of song and dance. From her humble roots as a sharecropper’s daughter, to the dingy dancing stage of Miss Hattie’s to the brightest star in the 1920s black and tan Chicago Jazz scene the Dreamland Café, Honoree sang and danced her way to unimaginable heights. Dreamland introduced her to the best life had to offer – gorgeous clothes, bootleg whiskey, socializing with celebrities like Louis Armstrong and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. But the Dreamland had its shadowy, sinister side, too and perhaps nothing is as perilous to Honoree’s dreams than former lover Ezekiel Bailey. He’d broken her heart once but the second time around getting tangled up with him could cost Honoree a lot more than a little pain – it could take everything from her that she worked so hard to build.
Sawyer wants Honoree’s story, but that story contains secrets. Secrets which even now have the power to hurt those she once loved, and while Sawyer might not know it, to hurt those he loves, too.
This novel portrays the world of mob violence as it was – racism, rape, physical abuse, sexual assault, murder – all make appearances on the pages. The book doesn’t glorify these things at all, but it makes it clear they were part of everyday life for women like Honoree and her friends. Rendering the situation all the more heartbreaking is the young age of the ladies who suffer through all this. Many of them have long sexual histories by the time they are in their late teens and a lot of that sex isn’t a matter of choice but survival. Yet somehow the author makes their tales an utter triumph. In a time where the life of a young black woman was as easy to snuff out as a candle, the heroines featured in these pages are bright enough, strong enough, clever enough not just to survive but thrive. Especially Honoree. My favorite portions of the book deal with her life in the speakeasy era, when she danced and sang for men who only wanted to use her. I liked that she was able to use them right back.
She doesn’t do this by becoming hard, but by having enough sense to watch out for herself while still having enough heart to be a decent human being. Honoree sees the quiet people who suffer in the backgrounds of life and helps them, such as young Bessie, a fellow dancer at Miss Hattie’s, who’s fallen on hard times and would probably have sunk rather than swum without Honoree’s aid. Honoree’s relationship with Ezekiel displays this mix of wit and warmth as well. He hurt her badly by promising to love and cherish her and then disappearing from her life without a word three years before they encounter each other again in the dance hall scene. She doesn’t just fall back in love with him but demands explanations for the past as well as studying who he is in the present, and she forgives him slowly and makes him earn her trust. At the same time, she is open to him winning her back so long as he can prove he’s worthy of doing so. I liked that their relationship is rebuilt with caution, that while both acknowledge the hurts of the past neither allows that to destroy their hope of happiness in the future.
Sawyer, like Honoree, has been through some tough times. But while hers is an action-packed physical tale of endurance, his is an emotional journey of acceptance and family. When Honoree tells him she wants his life story in exchange for her own, it seems like a simple case of quid pro quo but we slowly realize that their two lives might be more linked than he could have imagined. I loved that journey of discovery and also the budding romance he begins with Honoree’s nurse Lula.
While not listed on the back blurb, the bulk of this story is a mystery. It’s not just a question of the relationship between Sawyer’s grandmother and Honoree, which is a puzzle that slowly comes together throughout the tale, but a certified whodunit with a climatic ending that changes the trajectory of the lives of all those involved. The author does an excellent job with this aspect of the story, letting it build quietly in the background, piece by small piece until the final chapters, when everything starts to come together, and you find yourself reading into the wee hours just to find out what happened.
In fact, the book’s only flaw is that once we reach that climax, the story seems to lose steam, and everything is wrapped up a bit too neatly and quickly in the epilogue. I would have preferred a few more pages to flesh out what happened after the twist, but the story instead becomes an incomplete summation of several crucial years after we reach that point.
The epilogue does at least give us enough information to provide a somewhat satisfactory ending and given the brilliance of the rest of the story, I would still strongly recommend Wild Women and the Blues to those who love historical novels and are eager to dip into one that is beautifully written and rich in detail.