August Read of the Month: “Moonrise Over New Jessup” by Jamila Minnicks

Moonrise Over New Jessup (Algonquin Books 2023) is a beautifully written, thought-provoking novel about courageous people at the cusp of historical changes. It is the debut novel of Jamila Minnicks, a lawyer and writer. Within all its layers of conflict, it rings with authenticity. Set in a fictional all-Black community of New Jessup in Alabama in the late 1950s, the story not only explores the wide range of viewpoints and complexities which arose in the early civil rights era, it champions a town’s Black populace whose disagreements over the movement never defeat their innate goodness and strength. The novel fully deserves its enthusiastic praise (including the Washington Post’s labeling it a “masterpiece”) and its 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

A pleasure to read, not only is this faithfully told historical fiction at its best, it is also a sweet, gentle love story about two people who meet against the odds in New Jessup and slowly build a relationship meant to last. Their story is enriched with a cast of complex and compelling characters including town folk and family. Tensions and conflicts arise not only from the among these characters and within the community but most assuredly from without it. Yet this novel, despite its time frame, does not contain the graphic racial violence common in many civil rights era novels.

The main character is Alice Young, a young Black woman who flees the only home she has even known. Alice is strong in spirit and intellect, brave though sad at the novel’s beginning. Her tenant farmer father has just died, her mother long deceased, and Alice’s sister Rosie had already decamped for Chicago. Alice must leave in a hurry—without time to properly plan or pack—due to trouble gradually explained in more detail. Though her goal is Chicago, Alice only has money enough to buy a bus ticket to Birmingham. Yet before reaching that city, a kind stranger gives her a dime to get a Coke. When she gets off the bus in New Jessup to buy that cold drink, the town totally surprises her.

New Jessup is a segregated all-Black community, a fully functioning town where Black people live full lives and prosper while running their own businesses. Alice had no idea a place like this existed. Historically speaking, such towns did exist, and the author finds a way to note this, even naming a few such all-Black towns within the context of the plot without intruding upon the story’s flow.

A pastor and his wife soon befriend Alice, taking her into their home, providing shelter and sustenance. The pastor explains New Jessup’s history as a town “born of the swamp, from days of tribulation. But from tribulation comes perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.” New Jessup is on the other side of the woods from the predominantly White town of Jessup. It was built deliberately by sustained efforts to recruit Black citizens to reside there.

Alice finds a kind of freedom in New Jessup she never felt before—she does not have to tread lightly among “whitefolk,” nor look for the back door entrance, nor step off the sidewalk to make way for rich White ladies—nor fear what the landlord wants extra with the rent. Beyond that, there is a sense of coming home. In New Jessup, there are “no signs telling me my place because everyplace is my place.” She soon finds two jobs, one as a seamstress and another waiting tables at a diner.

At the diner where she works, Alice meets Raymond, a young, well-educated Black man active in the Civil Rights movement. He has moved back home to New Jessup to live with his opinionated but loyal father. All too soon, conflicting viewpoints arise between Alice and Raymond with regards to civil rights, integration, and activism. Raymond wants New Jessup to become incorporated so that their tax money is spend there and not elsewhere, and so the town’s residents have complete control. Yet his brother and others want full equality and voting rights and an end to segregation. Alice, fearful of losing what she has found in New Jessup, favors the status quo. She—and others—fear that agitation for change, whether radical or minor, will only make things worse. One prevailing lesson the residents have learned is that the surrounding White communities will leave New Jessup more or less alone so long as there is no organizing for integration and no active push for full civil rights. Aside from her concerns, Alice also explains that she loves New Jessup as “A place to be ourselves among ourselves.”

Raymond emphatically disagrees:

“Alice, we live on the Negro side of town. Every time we pay taxes, the city’s still taking our money, skimming from the top to keep it across the woods. If whitefolks are owed a dollar for the roads, their schools, they get two. We’re owed a dollar, we get a dime. It’s time to control our own money, first off.”

Raymond’s position is poignantly highlighted in a scene where Alice and others tour a New Jessup school. The books there are second-hand cast offs from the White schools and Alice is heartbroken to find hateful, demeaning racial slurs scribbled in some of the books.

Raymond’s brother Percy becomes a voice for full equal rights and integration. He is yet another source of conflict in the story as he disapproves of Alice and strives to push Raymond further into the civil rights movement. Other characters explain the many intricacies of opinions among the citizens and visitors in New Jessup. In this way, Minnicks impeccably communicates the many facets of the movement and conflicting perspectives through conversations, arguments, and actions. While this is an eye-opening and educational book, the author handles those instructive aspects so well that readers will be swept into the characters’ lives all the while absorbing many lessons.

Published interviews with Minnicks establish the extensive research she did in writing this book to assure its accuracy. She also has genuine Alabama roots through her mother’s people. Thus the novel flows with a strong sense of place and time. The author’s excellent eye for telling details and her flair for vibrant descriptions pull readers right into the story.

As compelling as the plot is and as intriguing as the characters are, the excellence of the writing itself should not be overlooked. The book is a sheer marvel of eloquent prose. Minnicks knows how to write a sentence with all the grace of the best lyrical poets and with the impact of the strongest novelists. For example, soon after a breakup between Alice and Raymond over their political disagreements, Alice realizes she will reconcile with him because they have “as much choice to stay apart as the moon had to decide whether to rise and set.” And, in describing a family gathering, she writes that “Pop barked laughing again, Raymond’s laugh beat the air, and Percy smiled with cool eyes—a splash, a wave, a ripple.”

This is an important book, well-structured with beautifully crafted language. Moonrise over New Jessup deserves a large audience.

Jamila Minnicks

While this is the first full novel of Jamila Minnicks, her short fiction and essays are published, or forthcoming, in The Sun, CRAFT, Catapult, Blackbird, and The Write Launch. Her piece, Politics of Distraction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In 2022, Jamila was awarded a Tennessee Williams scholarship for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and she also earned a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the Howard University School of Law, and Georgetown University. She lives in Washington, DC. Find her at



  1. I look forward to reading this!

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