Category: Read My Own Damn Books

Homegoing

Cover image for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi by Yaa Gyasi

ISBN 97811019947142

“You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia and Esi are half-sisters who have never met. First divided by their mother’s secrets, they will soon be divided by an ocean when Esi is sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. Effia remains in Ghana, sold in marriage by her step-mother to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are held in cramped dungeons before being loaded onto ships bound for America. In present day America, Marjorie wrestles with her identity as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, while Marcus struggles to complete his PhD knowing that many young black men of his generation are dead or in jail, and that only chance has kept him from the same fate. In a sweeping family saga, Yaa Gyasi follows the sisters’ bloodlines over hundreds of years, one child from each generation, tracing the impact of colonialism and slavery across the centuries, between Ghana and America.

Homegoing opens in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s, and concludes in America in the present day. Extremely ambitious in scope, it employs an unusual structure that alternates between the two bloodlines, with a new narrator for each generation, meaning that Homegoing has a total of fourteen point of view characters. This requires the reader to settle into a new perspective every twenty or thirty minutes. However, two factors keep this structure working. First is seeking the connection back to the previous story, to find out what has become of the mother or father since we left them behind. And next is looking ahead for the new character’s romantic interest, a necessity in order for the family tree structure of the novel to function, making every chapter a love story in its own way. The chapters are not quite short stories, though each has a distinct narrative arc. But the full function of the novel comes in the layering and juxtaposition of each subsequent piece, until they are all taken together.

I was personally most drawn into the chapters set in Africa, perhaps because the story was less familiar. The American side of the story traces the family from plantations to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era, and through the modern day, history that I have at least a decent grasp on. I knew much less about tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante, and how the British exploited it to fuel the slave trade. Another fascinating chapter, featuring Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, recounts the introduction of cocoa farming in Ghana. It remains one of Ghana’s chief agricultural exports to this day. However, the chapter that gave me the biggest emotional punch in the gut was about Kojo—Esi’s grandson—and his wife, Anna, who are living free in Baltimore when the Fugitive Slave Act is introduced in 1850.

Homegoing is a multigenerational epic that walks the fine line between hope, anger, and despair as the tales of Esi and Effia’s descendants unspool. Each chapter is a slice of life set against the background of a particular historical era, be it the Great Migration or the War of the Golden Stool. The full effect of the novel is such that in the end, the reader knows more about Marcus and Marjorie’s families than they do, the fall out of slavery and colonialism depriving them of their history and culture. The book is a potent reminder that the history is always there, just beneath the surface, and that the story has always been waiting to be told, though the voice of the victors has long drowned it out.

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You might also like The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

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The Lost History of Stars

Cover image for The Lost History of Starsby Dave Boling

ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4

“Living on the veldt taught nothing about the real value of space, creating the illusion that it was limitless. The great open distances of our land, which had once felt like a warm invitation, now stretched out on the other side of the camp’s fence like a cruel taunt.”

Fourteen-year-old Lettie and her Dutch Afrikaner family have a farm deep in the South African veldt when the Boer War comes to their doorstep. The British Army has instituted a scorched earth policy to root out the guerilla fighters who have resisted British attempts to lay claim to the Dutch South African republics, and the valuable natural resources that have been discovered there. With her father, grandfather, and brother still out on commando, Lettie, her mother, and her younger siblings are rounded up and marched to a concentration camp, while their farm is looted and burned. Inside the barbed wire of the camp, Lettie continues trying to fight the war with her own small acts of defiance, while also finding a way to survive the horrifying conditions with her hope for the future intact.

The Lost History of Stars is a story about a forgotten tragedy. Dave Boling was tracing his family roots, when he discovered that his grandfather was a soldier in the Boer War (1899-1902). However as he learned more about the conflict, the idea of telling a story about his family history was quickly abandoned in favour of bringing the story of what happened to the Boer women and children back into the historical memory. Although there may not have been genocidal intent, the British concentration camps in South Africa were the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps that now define that term in our collective consciousness. More than twenty-thousand Boer women and children died of disease and malnutrition in the camps, in addition to the many uncounted black Africans, who were interned separately.

Speaking about his novel in public appearances, Dave Boling has revealed that The Lost History of Stars went through many drafts before emerging in its current form. The first was a sprawling narrative of war in the line of his first novel, Guernica. The next focused in on Lettie, her mother Susannah, her aunt Hannah, and Bina, the native woman who worked for them. All four characters remain in the final draft, but Lettie is the only point of view character. The decision to make Lettie the sole narrator, while focusing the scope of the story, also removes most of Bina’s point of view, as native Africans were held in separate camps. Bina’s main role in the final version of the story is as a source of wisdom for Lettie, but we learn little about her own ordeal.

One of my worries going into this story was that it would feature an ill-conceived romance between Lettie and Tommy Maples, one of the British soldiers assigned to guard the camp. Fortunately, the relationship between Lettie and Maples is not overly romanticized. She has complicated feelings about him that evolve and change over the course of the book, but Boling does not depict it as anything other than an unequal relationship. Maples is not generally a villainous figure, and he can even sometimes be sympathetic, but it is clear that he and Lettie can never really be friends given the circumstances under which they meet, and a romance could not come to any good end.

Lettie is a heart-felt narrator, who depicts both realistic trauma, and the ability to hold onto hope in trying circumstances. Her voice forms the heart of the The Lost History of Stars. In addition to shedding light on a forgotten tragedy, the central conflict, based on far-flung wars for natural resources, has a continued contemporary relevance.

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Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugoby Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1-62779-212-7

“Geels looked at Kaz as if he was finally seeing him for the first time. The boy he’d been talking to had been cocky, reckless, easily amused, but not frightening—not really. Now the monster was here, dead-eyed and unafraid. Kaz Brekker was gone, and Dirtyhands had come to see the rough work done.”

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him.

Kaz’s crew consists of six players, including himself. Inej, a Suli girl whose indenture to the Menagerie brothel was bought out by the Dregs thanks to her skills as an acrobat. Nina, a Grisha Heartrender stranded in Ketterdam by the Ravkan Civil War. Matthias, a disgraced Fjerdan druskelle—witch hunter—serving time in a Kerch prison thanks to Nina. Jesper, a Zemeni gunman with a dangerous fondness for gambling. And Wylan, a runaway mercher’s son with a talent for blowing things up.  Together, they might just have the right combination of talent and desperation to get the job done. All of the characters are teens, though they mainly read as much older, even accounting for their rough lives. However, this doesn’t particularly detract from the story.

Six of Crows is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. The present focuses on the heist, and how the group will extract Bo Yul-Bayur from Fjerda’s Ice Court. But Bardugo also carefully measures out backstory, slowly revealing how the boy Kaz Reitveld became the Barrel lieutenant Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker. Character development is married to plot development, as Nina and Matthias’ history plays a critical role, and leads to an unlikely alliance. We find out why Matthias was in Hellgate Prison, and how he got there. Before the crew can even head to Fjerda, they must break Matthias out of Hellgate, and convince him to betray his country and help them with the heist. Which might be somewhat difficult since he vowed to kill Nina Zenik if he ever escaped.

Six of Crows also represents an excellent continued development of the Grishaverse. Bardugo uses and expands the world she already built in her Grisha Trilogy, but this adventure takes an entirely different direction; it is a heist story in contrast to Alina’s epic. While most of the characters in the original trilogy were Grisha, here the cast represents a wider range of more diverse folk. Nina is decidedly not skinny, Kaz walks with a limp and uses a cane, Jesper and Wylan are queer, and Inej and Jesper are people of colour. They come from different countries and upbringings, and have very different dreams for what they will do with their share of the 30 million kruge haul.

Six of Crows also contains ample romance. Nina and Matthias have a fiery chemistry belied by their mortal enemy status. Inej secretly hopes that Kaz might one day return her feelings, while also doubting whether forming a relationship with him would be a good idea, or if he is even capable of such a thing. The cutest flirtation belongs to Jesper and Wylan, who only finally come around to directly acknowledging their interest in the heat of the heist, when plans have gone off the rails, and everyone is improvising. Wylan is the only one of the main six who is not a point of view character, and we do not get flashbacks for him or Jesper, but I hope their story will be further developed in Crooked Kingdom, which I cannot wait to read.

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You might also like An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Waking Gods (Themis Files #2)

Cover image for Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvelby Sylvain Neuvel

ISBN 978-1-101-88672-4

“I’m grateful for Themis, to be in her company every day. I feel drawn to her. She isn’t of this world either. She doesn’t belong here any more than I do. We’re both out of place and out of time, and the more I learn about her, the closer I feel to understanding what really happened to me.”

Almost a decade has passed since the events of Sleeping Giants, when Rose Franklin and her team hunted down and assembled the pieces of the giant alien robot known as Themis. Rose has dedicated her time to studying Themis, and Kara and Vincent have continued to try to master operating her. Then another robot materializes in the middle of London, and the government’s response inevitably leads to a deadly confrontation. The appearance of Hyperion also drives home how little the Earth Defense Corps really knows about Themis’ combat capabilities. And that knowledge will be more necessary than ever when more robots begin to materialize around the globe, in the world’s most populous cities. The aliens know that humanity has found Themis, and they are not happy about it.

The structure of Waking Gods continues in the interview format Sylvain Neuvel used with great success in Sleeping Giants, with the unnamed character who I always think of as the Interrogator resuming his contact with the Earth Defense Corp after a long silence. Neuvel continues to work this technique, for example by having General Govender practice his speech to the UN General Assembly for the Interrogator before he delivers it. This in fact makes for a more interesting scene than simply witnessing the speech directly, as we gain insight into the Interrogator through the changes he suggests. However, as the situation on Earth descends into chaos, the narrative structure devolves in parallel, taking on more of a transcript style than an interview format. Everything is falling apart, and the style mimics that. We do, however, find out more about the mysterious Interrogator, and his even more mysterious friend Mr. Burns.

It has been nine years since Rose Franklin returned from the dead, mysteriously missing three years of her life and memories. For all that time she has struggled with what this rebirth means, whether she is really Rose Franklin, or merely a copy with some of her memories and knowledge. That doubt has been eating away at her stability for nearly a decade, but when the robots begin to appear, and Themis is called into action, it is the world that has become unstable, and Rose who must hold steady in the face of the unknown. Her development is one of the most interesting aspects of this series.

One of the more disturbing plotlines picks up a dangling thread from Sleeping Giants. Before being ousted from the Earth Defense Corps, geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou harvested ova from Captain Kara Resnick without her knowledge or consent. Kara has never been informed about this violation, because those who knew about it decided that the situation had been taken care of with Alyssa’s removal. When it turns out that Alyssa may have had time to act on her plans before her ouster, they continue to delay telling Kara what was done to her as they try to confirm whether or not Alyssa succeeded. If I can get a little bit spoilery here for the remainder of this paragraph… I absolutely loathe plotlines where women who are childless by choice are forced into motherhood. And I especially hate the implication that their choice was just due to some sort of damage, and really they would be great mothers. In short, I really did not enjoy how Kara’s character was developed in this volume.

In Waking Gods, the genre elements of Sleeping Giants are intensified, and the plot becomes more fast-paced. There is now no question that Themis has alien origins, or that aliens visited earth long ago, and that some of them stayed behind. Waking Gods explores the fallout of these conclusions, but also the more dramatic effects of the aliens becoming aware of how humanity has developed since their last contact. At the same time, the aliens are not significant characters, since this is really an exploration of what it means to be human. Although the duology stands well together, the epilogue hints at the possibility of further adventures.

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You might also like The God Wave by Patrick Hemstreet

Brown

Cover image for Brown by Kamal Al-Solayleeby Kamal Al-Solaylee

ISBN 978-1-44344-143-8

“We are lured to do the work in good times—until the economic bubble bursts. Then we turn into the job stealers, the welfare scammers, and the undocumented.”

North American thinking about race is often sharply divided along the black-white line. In Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee examines what it means to be neither white nor black, but to occupy the vast cultural space in-between. From the exploitation of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States to the demonization of Muslims in Canadian political discourse, Al-Solaylee considers how the arrival of visibly different immigrants gives rise to hierarchies, and exposes nascent xenophobic tendencies. Expanding beyond just North America, Al-Solaylee visits France, the United Kingdom, Trinidad, and Qatar, among other countries, to explore the tensions and crises that have arisen as the result of migrant brown labour in a globalized economy.

Al-Solaylee centres much of his idea of brownness on movement, specifically migration and immigration for economic purposes. Al-Solaylee spent nearly two years visiting ten countries to gather the various stories and perspectives that appear in Brown. In doing so he sets particular limits on the scope of the book, and makes exclusions. He does not, for example, talk about aboriginal people who have, by definition, been here all along. Al-Solaylee is looking particularly at “who does the work locals spurn,” and seeking immigrant groups that have “reached a crisis point in the host country.” Al-Solaylee specifically excludes East Asians, even though there are certainly places where they meet the stated criteria, the affordable housing controversy in Vancouver being a prime example.

While the third section of the book deals with brown immigrants to predominantly white countries, the middle section visits places that involve examining prejudices within and between brown communities. Al-Solaylee cites colourism, where lighter brown people enjoy social and professional advantages significant enough that skin-lightening products and procedures are a booming industry. Al-Solaylee also pays a visit to Trinidad, where he looks at the tension that exists between Trindadians of African and Indian descent. Both groups arrived in the Caribbean under duress, either as slaves or as indentured labour, but continue to experience fairly rigid cultural separation based on stereotypes of their communities.

Among the case studies presented in Brown are many South-Asian domestic and hospitality workers, most of whom are deployed to Hong Kong and the Middle East. Most female migrant workers are involved in domestic labour, from nursing to child care to cleaning. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at Filipina migrant workers, following them to Hong Kong, where foreign workers make up five percent of the population. The women work long hours for small pay, far away from their families, extremely vulnerable to physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse by their employers.  By contrast, many of the male migrant workers are involved in construction. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at the Middle East, where entire camps have been built to house the South-Asian workers who come to build sky-scrapers and stadiums in dangerous conditions that see an average of one worker per day die on the job. The flip-side, of course, is the lack of remunerative work back home in saturated or stagnant job markets.

After briefly discussing the concepts race and colourism and their history in the first two chapters, Al-Solaylee begins the series of case studies that examine the idea of brownness from various angles, creating more breadth than depth. Al-Solaylee is exposing the surface of many complicated issues and situations, succeeding in providing a sense of the scope, but not a deep understanding. Nevertheless, he provides an entry point to a variety of situations that shine a light on our thinking about race and colour, and how we use these concepts to define classes within our cultures. Each chapter could merit a book of its own, but Al-Solaylee is focused on the picture they provide when presented alongside one another.

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You might also like Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee

More Happy Than Not

Cover image for More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera by Adam Silvera

ISBN 978-1-61695-561-8

“My worlds collided and I can’t get up.”

Sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto has been struggling since his father’s suicide, a downward spiral that culminated in a suicide attempt of his own, as the smile-shaped scar on his wrist constantly reminds him. Neither his overworked mother, nor his video-game obsessed older brother are able to offer much in the way of support, but Aaron is trying to get back to normal, a little bit at a time. When his girlfriend Genevieve leaves to spend three weeks at a summer art camp in New Orleans, Aaron begins hanging out with Thomas, a kid from the next block who is a little less rough and tumble than the friends Aaron grew up with. Soon their fast friendship is stirring up tensions with Aaron’s old crowd, and even Genevieve seems a little jealous when she returns home. As Aaron’s feelings for Thomas spiral out of control, he becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing the Leteo procedure—a new medical technique that might be able to make him forget that he ever liked a boy.

Occasionally you run across a book that is best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf being my most recent example. While I had heard a lot of hype about how good this book was, I had somehow managed to absorb almost nothing about the plot, and I think that was for the better as far as my reading experience with More Happy Than Not. So if you are already planning to read it, just go do it! You can read reviews later. If you still need convincing, read on.

More Happy Than Not is a largely contemporary novel with a slight speculative fiction twist. Almost everything about Aaron’s world is recognizable as modern day New York. The exception is the Leteo procedure, a controversial new neurological technique that allows doctors to erase memories. When the novel opens, Aaron’s neighbourhood is abuzz with the rumour that Kyle and his family have moved away because Kyle had the Leteo procedure in order to forget about the murder of his twin brother, Kenneth. Despite this sci-fi twist, the focus is largely on identity and human relationships, and Aaron’s growing curiosity about the Leteo procedure is mostly a narrative device that allows Silvera to delve into the conflict surrounding his sexuality. When is it humane to allow someone to forget a terrible experience? What role does experience play in identity if it can simply be overwritten?

More Happy Than Not is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Silvera does a good job of developing the connection between Aaron and Genevieve in the early chapters, so it is genuinely heartbreaking to see them beginning to come apart when Aaron starts to fall for Thomas. Aaron’s family relationships are less than stellar, and his childhood friends are deeply homophobic, leaving him isolated and depressed, grasping after the hope of a miracle cure that will make it all go away. Aaron struggles to even say the word gay—eventually opting for “dude-liker” instead—so it is perhaps not surprising that bisexuality is never considered, let alone discussed. The style develops in accordance with Aaron’s level of happiness and self-understanding, bumping along with an artful unevenness that neatly conveys his inner turmoil. While dark enough that I would not necessarily recommend this book for everyone—it deals heavily with both homophobia and suicide—it is nevertheless a powerful expression of what it means to come of age in an environment that is hostile to your very identity.

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Forgotten

Cover image for Forgotten by Linda Hervieuxby Linda Hervieux

ISBN 978-0-06-231379-9

“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”

Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.

Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.

Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.

After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.

Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.

Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.

Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.

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You might also like Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly