Photo from Amazon.com
Author: LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Published 2015 Grove Press. $24
African-American fiction, Historical fiction, Family saga, LGBTQ
Available in print and eBook
Why I Read It
I read the Publisher’s Weekly starred review while perusing he publication for collection development purposes. I’d wanted to add it to my list for the library to purchase, but it is only available in hardcover at the moment, and outside of my permissions.The description caught me. A black girl from Texas in the early 20th century starts a newspaper with her female lover, who happens to be her former teacher. Her mother is Muslim; her father is not. If for no other reason, I would have wanted to see how this played out. Then, I recognized the name. Barnett is a readalike author for Sarah Waters. Both authors explore social themes through ordinary women, write in the Historical Fiction genre, particularly post-WWI, and feature LGBTQ characters prominently.
Ivoe Williams has always loved the printed word, but will that love lead to disaster?
Ivoe Williams is the daughter of a Muslim and a Christian, with a passionate love for the printed word. In this saga, we follow Ivoe and her family for nearly thirty years. Lemon, her mother, is a domestic worker and gifted gardener. Ennis, her father, is a metalsmith. Part one of Jam on the Vine takes place in Texas, showing Ivoe’s formative years, both as a child and a young woman. Part two finds the Williams family in Kansas City, Missouri, where Ivoe dreams of becoming a journalist, but is laid low by the city’s unwillingness to hire a colored woman. Along the way, we are introduced to Ivoe’s first and only love, Ona Durden, her printing teacher at college. Letters exchanged between the two show their growing love, but it takes a tragedy to bring the two together. With encouragement from Ona, money from Lemon, and courage and determination, Ivoe begins the first black female-owned newspaper in Kansas City, Jam on the Vine.
Here’s what I think
Jam on the Vine is family saga and coming of age story all rolled into one. One cannot know Ivoe without knowing her family and her family’s history in Little Tunis, Central East Texas. We follow the Williams family, Ivoe, her Muslim mother and aunt, Lemon and May-Belle, her Christian father, Ennis, and her siblings, Timbo and Irabelle from 1897 to 1924, Texas to Kansas City, Missouri. Through two wars, the legacy of emancipation, and the beginnings of Jim Crow, we watch the Williams family “bend low to follow through”. At times, it seems as though Barnett wants to through everything and the kitchen sink at Ivoe and her family. However, each obstacle serves to highlight the love, trust, and strength of the characters. In reality, maturity comes in stages, and the same is true in Barnett’s fiction.
Barnett’s prose can be very poetic, but it doesn’t take away from the story. It adds dimension. Jam on the Vine wouldn’t sing from the page during intimate moments between Ennis and Lemon or Ivoe and Ona if the reader were not accustomed to Barnett’s lyrical touch. Admittedly, it does go wrong in a few places, such as the description of a public lynching and angry mob. But it rights itself to portray the conditions in a Missouri prison and a Kansas City meatpacking factory.
The omniscient author voice is perfectly suited to this novel, even with much of the focus on Ivoe. It allows the author to explore her characters and their motivations. It takes a deft hand to be able to show the same character many different ways, but Barnett excels. Each main character is shown through the eyes of his or her siblings, parents, lovers, and select friends. The omniscient author voice also allows for continuity in a story that uses time jumps, sometimes years, between chapters.
It is slow going in the first few chapters, but one may find herself intrigued by Ivoe’s ambitions and Lemon’s steadfastness. A new favorite with near perfect balance.
5Q–Hard to imagine it being better written.
4P–Broad general or genre appeal.
Readalikes, courtesy of NoveList Plus
Tatiana de Rosnay
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Price of a Child, Lorene Cary
No Graves As Yet, Anne Perry
Moving, thought-provoking, sensual, character-driven, atmospheric, lyrical
Book talk ideas
Ivoe questions her parents’ religions beliefs p. 43-45
Ona plants the seed p. 93
Ona comforts Ivoe p. 202
Ona studys Ivoe p. 224
Ivoe and Lemon have the talk p. 228-229
Ivoe is cleaned p. 243-244
Missouri State Penitentary p. 275
Omaha, Nebraska p. 256-260
Ivoe and Ona in Paris p. 294-295
Book discussion questions
1) May-Belle says she prayed for each of Lemon’s children in the womb. A strong will for Timbo, and courage for Ivoe. But for Irabelle, she prayed for safe pathways. What sorts of things do you think she saw in Irabelle’s future?
2) Lemon is Muslim. Ennis is Christian. At one point, Ivoe questions both parents on who God is and why they, her parents, don’t see eye to eye. The results confuse her, and she vows never to bring it up again. The Bible mentions that families like the Williams’ are unequally yoked and destined for failure, yet Lemon and Ennis thrive. Why is that?
3) Family plays a large part in Ivoe’s life. Do you think she could have done all she did if not for the love of her family?
4) Leila “Lemon” Williams is a strong woman, loving wife, dedicated mother. She has a way about her that allows her to see in ways many others cannot. In what ways is Ivoe like her mother?
5) There are four relationships central to Ivoe’s development as a woman and a writer. Name one and the impact on Ivoe.
6) Describe some of the parallels between being black in America in the early 20th century and now.
7) A pivotal conversation takes place between Ivoe and Lemon about Ivoe’s relationship with Ona Durden, leaving Lemon struggling with her religion and her love for her child and her child’s partner. Do you think the same conversation took place between Lemon and Ennis? Ivoe and Ennis?
8) What does the phrase “bend low to follow through” mean to you? What part does it play in the story of the Williams family?
Clues to the Future
Ona Durden, Ivoe Williams, Lemon, May-Belle, Berdis Peets, race women, Jam on the Vine, Kansas City Missouri, lesbians, African-American women, newspapers, women journalists, female printers
Awards and Lists
Links to the Author, Interviews, and Reviews
Author website: http://www.lashondabarnett.com/
Jam on the Vine book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX4Y_l4MBvM
Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8021-2334-3
Lambda Literary Review: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/02/08/jam-on-the-vine-by-lashonda-katrice-barnett/
The Chicago Tribune Review: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-books-editors-choice-jam-on-the-vine-20150212-story.html