Fiction Comes to Life

Characters live long if they catch the devoted attention of readers. Characters act and react and please and disappoint. “Don’t open that cellar door!” But the character opens the door and out leaps. . . a lost child. Characters take risks, and writers take risks when they breathe truth and texture to a character. When they avoid the cliche, the stereotype.

I will long remember Ivoe Williams, the lead character in Jam on the Vine, a debut novel by LaShonda Katrice Barnett. I’ve written before about my need to understand black lives because I grew up mostly in small towns in Maine where black people were not so much invisible as fictitious. There was a rumor that a black family had once lived on Durgintown Road in Cornish, but I never saw a black face until, oh, I guess when I started nursing school in Providence, RI. I read only about white characters, like Alex in The Black Stallion. That was as black as my early reading got. Then I went to grad school in Georgia. Finally, black faces, but not in my subdivision. Division–oh, the truth in that word.

So here I am, wondering what to do to educate myself, to find and uproot my hidden biases. Ivoe helps. She is a young black woman with who starts her own newspaper and puts herself on the front lines of the race wars in America in the early part of the 20th century. She’s braver than I am. And I care about her because Barnett shows me the close up I need to care about Ivoe, her parents (her mother is Muslim), her siblings, and her lover, a woman named Ona. I’m often scared for Ivoe. There are doors I wish she would not open. But she does. One of those doors is in my head.

Barnett has taught history and literature at prestigious colleges, so her cred is real when she writes about riots, lynchings, arson and other evils that Ivoe confronts. I will read more books like Jam as part of my education in American culture. Confrontation is emotional; education is essential.


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