A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.