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From Annette Gordon-Reed’s works on the lives of the Hemingses and Jeffersons in Monticello, Virginia, to the new book by author Chris Tomlinson on his familial connections with African-American running back LaDainian Tomlinson, much has been written recently about America’s tangled multiracial family tree. Penny Mickelbury, one of the founders of black LGBTQ fiction, joins that group with her new novel Belle City.
Belle City is the first work of historical fiction for Mickelbury, the author of ten mystery novels. Her groundbreaking Keeping Secrets (Naiad Press, 1994) was the first in a series featuring Gianna Maglione, a lesbian chief of a hate-crimes unit based in Washington D.C., and her journalist-lover Mimi Patterson. This new novel spans the twentieth century, beginning in tiny Carrie’s Crossing, Georgia in 1917, and ending in the Atlanta-like metropolis of Belle City in 2005. Tackling three specific time periods (1917-22, 1934-45 and 2005), the novel tells alternating family sagas following the lives of African-American Ruth Thatcher and her large family and white Jonas Thatcher and his smaller one, from their childhoods into old age. Excerpts from Jonas’ journal and Ruth’s taped conversations with her granddaughter fill in more detailed expressions of their thoughts and sometimes thwarted dreams for themselves and their kin.
One of the novel’s strongest scenes occurs early on, at a Juneteenth celebration in 1918. Mickelbury captures the strong sense of the connection in the black Carrie’s Corner community well—their joy at being together, and their sense of fragility and insecurity when they are unexpectedly approached by a white interloper. Often, Mickelbury also drives home the importance of the land to the people of these communities, both black and white—which will later play an important role in the surprises found in the wills of both Ruth and Jonas at the novel’s end.
Much happens in Belle City: births, deaths and murders occur, and various secrets are exposed. One family member becomes addicted to drugs; another becomes rich running liquor during Prohibition. Both black and white Thatchers become successful thanks to the arrival of FDR’s New Deal in the South. A black male couple (though there are no lesbians) makes a brief cameo appearance. The Great Migration of African-Americans from South to North is echoed in miniature by the family’s move from Carrie’s Corner to Belle City, and nodded to more explicitly as one of Ruth’s brothers decides to move to Chicago during World War II, starting what could have been an interesting debate about the virtues of the segregated South versus the ‘integrated’ North:
“You’re teaching and chil’ren is learning. It’s a school.” Pa was fully mad now. No traces of sadness or confusion remained. “Everybody over there calls you Professor Thatcher or Dr. Thatcher, just like they ought to. You always complained that the white folks down at the Board of Education always called you Silas. Never would give you the credit for your education. But now you got that, and it ain’t enough? It ain’t enough that your people give you what you said you wanted: To be in charge of a school and have people call you by your right name?” Pa waited for an answer and when none came, he asked, “You think the white folks at the Board of Education in Chicago is gon’ call you Dr. Thatcher? Is that why you goin’ to Chicago? To hear some white folks call you by a certain name? Is it gon’ sound better when they say it?”
Indeed, perhaps too much happens in Belle City. Fewer incidents combined with a deeper understanding of the large cast of characters would have helped to make the novel resonate more. A family tree, particularly for Ruth’s family, might have also been useful—although, to be fair, that would have risked giving away a number of the surprise connections between and within the two families too easily. Jonas Thatcher, who wants to be friends with the black Thatchers and is in love with Ruth, and a number of his business associates such as the banker Grady Allen, also come across as “magic Caucasians,” which is anti-racist, if not indeed pro-Negro, to an almost impossible extent for early-twentieth-century rural Georgia. What happened to these families during the convulsions of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s is left inconveniently omitted.
It may be somewhat surprising to finish a 300-plus page novel wanting more, but Belle City did leave me hungry for a more focused story and a richer engagement with the characters. There is indeed an epic story to be told about the lives of average southerners of said era as it moves from rural to urban, from post-Reconstructionist “Redemption” and the “New South,” to our so-called “post-racial” moment. Belle City skims many of the highpoints, but one wished that it delved deeper into the tangles of race and change.
By Penny Mickelbury
Paperback, 9780989897129, 341 pp.