Review essay by Donna Meredith
African American fiction writers have, for the most part, overlooked middle-class families as subjects until recently. Stacy Campbell, Lamarr White, and Barbara Joe Williams are among the new authors producing strong novels with middle-class characters and universal appeal.
Their protagonists, all educated professionals, struggle with issues like mental illness, infidelity, pedophilia, and forgiveness. Rather than dominating their stories, race is reflected primarily through the delicious sprinkling of small details that fully flesh out characters.
In Wouldn’t Change a Thing by Stacy Campbell (Strebor, 2015), nine-year-old Toni Williamson learns family members are concerned about her mother’s mental state after her divorce. Jesus and Mahalia Jackson have been talking to Greta—and she talks back. The voices accuse Greta’s oldest daughter Willa of poisoning her food.
Toni is forced to leave her hometown of Sparta behind and live in Atlanta with her cousin Clayton, a high school English teacher, and his partner Russ, a sound engineer. Not only will Toni lose her mother, she will be separated from her sister, who is packed off to different relatives. She becomes “the odd girl. The one with two dads. The one with the rickety family tree.”
Then the novel vaults forward to the life Toni has forged for herself as a high-profile architect in Atlanta. It is the day of Toni’s engagement party, what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. Would have been a fine day, but for a story on mental illness that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A reporter has interviewed Toni’s mother, who is obviously not dead, though that is what Toni has pretended to everyone she knows. Instead, the world learns her mother resides in a mental institution. Greta has told the reporter her daughters never have come to visit her. It’s a sob story—and Toni is the reason for the sobs. Her fiancé Lamonte is shocked. He asks, “Who are you? Don’t I deserve to know who I’m about to spend the rest of my life with?”
As the underpinnings of Toni’s life crumble, she flees to her hometown of Sparta, where she reconnects with family members she hasn’t seen in years. Toni is thrust into a world where pill hiding, violent outbursts, and sudden disappearances are the new reality. Yet she discovers a warm, supportive community, one that knows far more about her family than she does. Gradually, Toni understands the sacrifices made over the years to protect her.
Toni’s mother Greta narrates parts of the novel, allowing readers to wonder if she might be wrongfully confined to the mental hospital. Campbell does an admirable job of rendering the convoluted thinking of an unsound mind.
This novel bravely examines the conflicting emotions we experience when a family member spirals out of control. Through realistically drawn characters, it exposes the damage inflicted by the stigma our culture attaches to mental illness.
Another writer forging into new territory is Anthony Lamarr. Romantic love and family devotion dominate the heart of Lamarr’s literary novels so fully that skin color fades into irrelevance.
The narrators’ voices in Lamarr’s first novel, Our First Love (Strebor, 2013), feel fresh and original. The campus of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), an historically black university, plays a starring role when Nigel takes a job teaching journalism there. He has resigned from his previous position as a reporter because he felt ethically bound to suppress knowledge of a political candidate’s suicide. This courageous sacrifice immediately makes him a sympathetic character.
Nigel, as a retrospective narrator, hooks us on the first page with the dark undertones of his confession: “The truth was, I would have loved her anyway. Even if I had known what I knew today—that she would abscise us and send our world spiraling out of orbit—I would have still walked that contorted line, fought in vain to hold on to her, and lived again. Loving her did more than change our lives. Her love changed everything.”
While the novel focuses on Nigel’s new job and his attraction to Karen, a fellow professor, the past continually seeps through and threatens the new life he is forging. Nigel’s younger brother Caleb lives with him after a tragic accident that left their parents dead. The mystery of what happened to them—an event that left Caleb in a coma for two years and in a state of amnesia after he awakes—drives this story. Caleb, confined to their house by severe panic attacks, experiences life vicariously through Nigel. But there are some things not even a beloved brother can share, some lines of separation that should not be crossed.
Our First Love stayed with me long after the final pages. It is remarkable for its careful rendering of an intense first love and for the deep bonds of brotherly love unique to this novel.
In Lamarr’s second novel, a dark secret causes a young man to become a recluse. The Pages We Forget (Strebor, 2014) is set in the fictional Hampton Springs, “a stone’s throw from the marshy coast of Florida’s Big Bend.” The town has a close-knit black population because a rich railroad and hotel owner bequeathed property to indentured servants who once lived in a shantytown behind the hotel. Two central characters are the children of these former servants. They now live in the security of ornate Victorian homes on a street lined with stately magnolias.
A touching love story, The Pages We Forget is likely to appeal to those who enjoy the novels of Nicholas Sparks. It delves into a social issue that can shatter lives in even the most perfect of small towns like Hampton Springs.
On a magical Prom night, June gives herself to the love of her life, Keith Adams. The moments are tender and sweet, everything you would expect after years of close friendship and blossoming first love. When Keith abandons June and Hampton Springs with no explanation the next day, both she and Keith’s parents are completely flummoxed by his actions. He is adamant that he wants no contact with anyone from his hometown.
Eventually, June builds a new life. She finds love again with boyfriend Alex and son Trevor—and gains great wealth and fame as a singer. But even ten years after Prom night, June is haunted by Keith’s betrayal and believes “[h]is touch ruined her life.” All she longs for is the answer to the question: “Why?”
Lamarr spools out the answer to the question slowly, allowing the suspense to build until the last pages. His poignant novels take us back to those moments in our lives when we believed the ache in our hearts could not be borne.
Novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and award-winning newspaper columnist, Lamarr resides in North Florida.
A writer with a different approach is Barbara Joe Williams. Her romance novels blend lust with deep spirituality. Forgive Us This Day (Amani, 2015) develops the theme that “the devil is busy” trying to cause trouble in marriages. The story begins when a happily married, happily wealthy businessman is tempted into a former lover’s bed. Michael Wayne knows better, but “fierce” kisses and “blood flowing to his manhood” drain “all the guiltiness” from his brain.
Williams alternates points of view, sometimes offering up Michael’s remorse and other times taking us inside the mind of his wife Alese. The couple’s life is complicated by obstacles as they try to finalize their adoption of two-year-old Bianca. Then Alese’s mother suffers yet another heart attack. While Alese flies to her mother’s side, the cunning sexpot Lisa plots to destroy the Waynes’ marriage.
Several friends and family members have side plots mirroring the trouble Michael and Alese face in holding a marriage together. The novel illustrates the need for partners to forgive each other for their imperfections. Alese tells her sister, who has strayed from the straight and narrow path, “You have to forgive yourself and ask God to forgive you. There is nothing that He will not forgive.” It is advice she will need to remember for her own life.
Williams is the author of six novels and two books on writing and marketing. She lives in Tallahassee.
Each of these authors has created characters we can easily identify with. They are smart, but not about everything; successful, up to a point; flawed, but not fatally; wounded, but still struggling. Life might bend them to their knees, but they get back up. These aren’t novels about being black or white; they are novels about being human.