Tag Archives: Racial Issues

An Hour Before Dawn: Memories of a Rural Boyhood By Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter’s narration about his childhood during the depression on a farm in Archery, Georgia – An Hour Before Dawn: Memories of a Rural Boyhood – is a charming autobiography which gives us a better understanding of our 39th President. I was impressed with Carter’s hands on work in all aspects of farm life, even as a young boy, and marveled at how the family survived lacking the amenities which we now take for granted, such as running water, electric lights, flushing toilets, and refrigeration. The simplicity of life required hard work and the hidden dangers threatened the life expectancy of the community. For example, it makes one wonder if the prevalence of pancreatic cancer in the Carter family might be connected with the arsenic they used as a pesticide. (At ninety three, Jimmy Carter beat the odds, although he recently had a melanoma which the doctors successfully treated).

While Carter has written numerous books, this one focuses specifically on the people who influenced his childhood, with a brief nod to his wife Roslyn, who grew up in the nearby town of Plains, and her support of his decision to move back to the farm, ending a successful career in the Navy to return to his roots.

Carter’s father was an industrious, hard working gentleman who carved out a successful career through his farmland, a concessions store, and various businesses, such as a sugar refinery, which provided the services necessary to make farming a self sustaining enterprise. While some landowners took advantage of the situation, Carter’s dad treated his workers fairly, and his integrity rubbed off on his son. One industrious sharecropper even saved enough to purchase a parcel of their land (which was eventually returned to the Carter homestead well after Jimmy’s father’s death).

Despite the respect Jimmy had for his father, it was the individuals who surrounded his life in those early years who shaped his character. He spent most of his time amongst the colored workers on the farm, with their children naturally becoming his best buddies. Carter didn’t realize the difference between the races, the separation by color in social situations was simply a part of southern living. He often slept over at the foreman’s house sharing a room with his son (who he considered his best friend), and it was Mrs Clark who taught him the moral lessons which influenced his life’s work.

As far as the title, an hour before dawn was Jimmy’s favorite time of day. A pleasant writing style full of humor and insights, I listened to the audiotape (an abridged version of the book) which was read by the author. Four stars.


Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

You know, there are other cities in the world besides New York?” Not if you’re a Manhattanite! Meet sex and the city without the sex, just a bunch of upscale families who live in a set of Brownstones on a one way/dead end block on the Upper West Side of “The City”. Not filthy rich, but definitely comfortable with the ability to afford a private school education and hire servants to care for the kids, cook the meals, and keep the house in good repair. An in-kind neighborhood where everyone meets up while walking their dog, using their free time to gossip over coffee and plan their lives so as not to miss the biyearly “hospitable” get-togethers – the Memorial Day BBQ and the January “Holiday” Party. Once you’re invited you know you have been accepted as one of the clique.

In Alternate Side, author Anna Quindlen brings us into the fold, placing us in a location where we can watch events unfurl. We see the world through the eyes of Nora Nolan, eyes that she often feels like rolling, such as when her husband Charlie is finally granted a coveted spot (and not a very good one at that) in the mini community parking lot – invitation only. No more playing the Alternate Side Game twice a week where you have to get up at the crack of dawn and move your car to the other side of the street to avoid getting a ticket. A sport that city dwellers, at least those with cars, are forced to play, since there’s no arguing once the meter maid puts pen tip to paper so as to fill the city’s coffers with fine money. Fortuitously, the nearby parking lot eases the pressure and makes Charlie feel like he belongs at a time when he isn’t quite certain this is the place he wants to be. Nora doesn’t need this affirmation, she knows she’s a New Yorker through and through, even though her childhood home was in Connecticut. She considers the greatest gift that she has given her twins is the ability to say they were born in Manhattan. Everything is going great, there’s still passion in her marriage, her son and daughter are set to graduate from college, her friendships are solid, and she has a fulfilling job managing the growing niche Museum of Jewelry. Then her sense of sublimeness is marred by an incident which seems to change the dynamics of the neighborhood and Nora finds herself reexamining the direction of her life as she tries to maintain an equilibrium that is threatening to fall apart despite her best efforts to keep an even keel.

If you are looking for action and intrigue, this is not the book for you. This is a simple story of the ebb and flow of life as one individual tries to navigate the course without losing her integrity. Nora is the woman we all want to be – living a life she loves in the city she loves doing what she loves to do. She’s privileged, yet recognizes she needs to be more inclusive. She’s kind, yet acknowledges the unavoidable drawbacks of her chosen lifestyle. She’s discerning, yet accepting of her ultimate fate. The men in this novel are not shown to advantage, although to be fair, I’m not sure the women are either.

The downside to the novel is keeping track of all of Nora’s friends and acquaintances which gets challengingly confusing at times. Perhaps a handy who’s who guide at the beginning or end of the book would help the reader figure things out. I’m also not sure if readers who don’t have a New York connection will appreciate the sentiment surrounding an urban subsistence or understand the intensity of Nora’s feelings towards a way of life that must seem artificial and exclusive. This could detract from the anticipated audience, but I, for one, who was born in Brooklyn, really relate to this book (even though I now live in a suburb of Buffalo). I get the close family feeling of the neighborhood and I also understand it doesn’t last forever, that various regions in New York City grow and change over a relatively short period of time. Peoples lives are also fluid, not static, forcing new adventures even on reluctant participants. Most of all, I get the Alternate Parking, since in my childhood the family car was parked in a lot about a mile away from our apartment, forcing us to make a deliberate decision to drive rather than walk/take the subway/catch a bus. My dad didn’t play the Parking Game, but I knew other parents who did and I didn’t envy them their crack of dawn dart out the door to maneuver a vehicle which was just going to sit there positioned in the same spot until the next “moving” day. I sometimes think about those metropolitan dwellers when I pull into my own driveway just steps from the front door. Yet, many are willing to put up with the inconvenience in exchange for the ambiance of life in “The City”.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult

Literature highlighting the latent racism hidden amongst even the most liberal of the white population in the United States is especially relevant during a time when the slogan “Make America Great Again” appears to be code for “Make America White Again”. With a self proclaimed white supremacist stashed near President Trump’s ear, the rest of us, no matter which way we voted, need to be vigilant against any attempts to reinstitute laws which are discriminatory. Already there is a cry out against what is referred to as the “New Jim Crow Laws” as our citizens of color march under the banner “Black Lives Matter”.

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult examines the life of Ruth Anderson, a maternity nurse who lives a comfortable life style in an upscale neighborhood in Connecticut, the widow of an American war veteran and the mother of an outstanding sophomore attending a prestigious high school. (Did I mention that she is black?)

Her entire life changes when a young couple is horrified that a black woman is touching their newborn son and she is asked to step away and refrain from interacting with the tiny babe. Yet, shit happens, and Ruth finds herself alone with the infant when he stops breathing, choosing to resuscitate the limp form but stepping back as soon as she hears help arriving. Asked to start chest compressions while the doctor does his due diligence, little Davis still dies. The parents threaten to sue for negligence, but the hospital lawyer sees Ruth as an easy target and redirects their energies in her direction.

It’s at this point Ruth’s life becomes surreal as she is relieved of her duties at the hospital, loses her nursing license, and finds herself being dragged off to jail in the middle of the night wearing nothing but a nightgown. Out of a job and refusing to touch Edison’s College Fund, Ruth relies on a public defender to plead her case as she slings burgers at McDonalds to make ends meet. Her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white woman, pursues the case for altruistic motives but discovers her own hidden biases as she becomes aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) forms discrimination takes in a society geared towards the needs of a white clientele.

Moving back and forth between the points of view of the three main characters – Turk (Davis’ father), Kennedy, and Ruth – the plot advances through the trial and its aftermath with an epilogue that also hints at future events.

Jodi Piccoult takes on a heavy topic which is made more difficult since she is white and can only empathize with the black community through second hand experiences. Yet Piccoult’s popularity provides a vehicle to explore a sensitive issue which has been ignored for way too long. Based on some real experiences, the author takes a few liberties and at times stretches our sense of credibility, although this longish story is absolutely readable and engrossing on many levels, despite the too convenient ending. Its almost instant popularity guarantees a wide readership and will perhaps open some eyes to many of the daily mishaps experienced by our neighbors who were not lucky enough to be born into a life of privilege based simply on skin color. Of equal importance is a glance into the white supremacist movement, analyzing the various motivations and strategies used by an ever present segment of our society.

Four stars and a thank you to both Netgalley and the author, through Goodreads, for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Since You’ve Been Gone by Mary Jennifer Payne

In a YA book, the expectations for great literature are not very high. Teens tend to want a fast paced story with some action, a bit of conflict, a touch of romance, and a dose of angst thrown in for good measure. Mary Jennifer Payne has tossed all this into the mix in her novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, with a varying degree of success.

Edie and her mom are constantly on the run from an abusive father who has a tendency towards violence whenever conflicts arise, which is fairly often. The day he placed a hand on Edie was the day her mother packed their bags and left home, successfully eluding her husband for five years by constantly switching from one locale to the next. Although Toronto was their original home, this latest move finds the two in London, England, where Sydney Fraser spent her youth.

Edie is sick of the constant upheaval and now she’s in a new country with different customs. Her first day at school she meets (and rejects) the school nerd, is accosted by the school bully, and settles in with some potential friends. The teachers are not overly welcoming and she is reprimanded for being late. While striving to keep a low profile, she needs to find a solution to a major catastrophe in her life – the sudden, prolonged disappearance of her mom. After stealing the fundraising jar of money meant to help build a school for girls in Afghanistan, she is able to fund a weekend to search for her missing parent. Unfortunately, a fellow classmate, Jermaine, is the one accused of theft. Even though he knows that Edie is the culprit, he remains mum in exchange for the truth. Together the two set out on a manhunt to discover the whereabouts of Sydney Fraser.

As an American, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the various landmarks in London. Common names, such as Tim Horton’s (a popular coffee shop throughout Canada started by a famous hockey player), Starbucks, and Burger King are relatable to those of us living in North America. Other customs may be a little alien, such as double decker buses and the metro system. They add a little spice to the story. Also of interest are the racial dynamics facing a black teen born and raised in England. Jermaine seems to face some prejudice, with teachers dismissing his intelligence and punks threatening to knife him in full view of a crowd, but it doesn’t extend to the developing friendship/romance between the two protagonists and, in spite of his questionable treatment, Jermaine remains one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, the plot line has a potential which is never reached. One of my criticisms is that the story takes place within about a week’s time. The idea that all the events unfold this quickly defies logic. And even though it is a relatively short novel (the perfect length for a YA story) there are sections which drag. While the premise is interesting, the specific events leading up to the climax are dull, in spite of some “erroneous events” popping up along the way that at times enhance and at other times detract from the story. There are also a lot of random characters who make brief appearances but aren’t worth noticing. In addition, Edie’s thoughts are too often like a broken record. The most complex and interesting character is Jermaine. I would have liked to have heard more of his story. The romance between these two was gentle and appropriate for fifteen or sixteen year olds, with more of an emphasis on friendship then on passion.

Just because a book is meant for Young Adults, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve well developed characters with interesting motivations. Ms Payne needs to know when to spend more time on a topic, and when to eliminate unnecessary elements to the story, in order to create a more cohesive whole. Hopefully her next novel will reflect these recommendations. I give this book three stars.

I would like to thank Dundurn Press from Ontario, Canada and Netgalley for allowing me to download a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.