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The New, the Old and the Obscure 

Books by Brit Bennett, John Edgar Wideman and Louise Erdrich.

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The New

“The Vanishing Half” (2020) by Brit Bennett

“The Vanishing Half,” Britt Bennett’s second novel after her notable and harrowing first, “The Mothers,” is a deeply affecting portrait of a family living alone together.

The novel focuses on the Vignes sisters, light-skinned African American twins, born in a predominately Black, small Southern town named Mallard, who run away to New Orleans at the age of 16 and end up living entirely different lives. One lives under the guise of a white woman, while the other returns home with her daughter, only to be reunited a generation later by their daughters’ friendship.

Spanning 40 years from the 1950s to the 1990s, Bennet draws from the divisions of race and identity in the South, and dives into the hearts of her characters while they continue to let the past dictate decisions both brave and flawed.

In lyrical prose and pitch-perfect dialogue, we come to see these characters as closely as they see themselves.

Bennet writes, “You were supposed to be safe in Mallard – that strange, separate town – hidden amongst your own. But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die.”

The Old

“Brothers and Keepers” (1984) by John Edgar Wideman

Readers of Wideman know that he often places his personal life in his fiction. Here, he’s writing a personal history of his relationship to his younger brother, Robby, who has been sentenced to life in prison for murder. Wideman asserts that the story is his way of processing the actual events: “[I] take full responsibility for the final mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact.”

Wideman is a rule-breaker, shifting perspectives, tone and text in a seamless rhythm that is poetic, blunt and honest. As the narrative moves forward, he employs his brother’s voice. As readers, we come to understand that the author does so to try to understand himself. Wideman moves through space and time like no other living writer. His scenes are razor sharp, and the story grounded in pursuing truth, no matter how flawed the path or the cost he must pay.

Told in three parts, with much of the emphasis on the author’s own grappling with how he and his brother became such different people, Wideman delves deep into his relationship to his family, the plight of incarcerated Black men and the reckoning his brother must face as he spends the rest of his life behind bars.

Upon entering the prison to visit Robby, Wideman writes, “I want to greet the prisoners civilly as I would if we passed each other outside. … But locks, bars, and uniforms frustrate the simplest attempts at communication. … Without speaking a word, without having ever seen each other before, we know too much about each other. … Our rawest, most intimate secrets are exposed. … The place where we meet one another is called the slammer and sure as shit it slams us together.”

The Obscure

“The Beet Queen” (1986) by Louise Erdrich

As a prolific writer of work as varied as children’s books, novels and poetry collections, Louise Erdrich’s later work has won her great praise and a new following, including the National Book Award for her novel “The Round House” (2012). However, her lesser known second novel, “The Beet Queen,” is one I highly recommend.

Here we find an author unafraid to write realistic fiction with a bend toward the absurd, while controlling many different voices that collide and expand the narrative to magnificent ends.

Beginning in the 1930s, the story follows Mary and Karl Adare, brother and sister, recently orphaned by their mother who leaves them at a fair after flying off with a stunt pilot. The siblings travel by boxcar to Argus, North Dakota, the setting for many of Erdrich’s stories. When they arrive in Argus, the two separate – Karl begins a life on the road while his sister is raised in a butcher shop by her aunt.

Tackling issues of race, ownership, sexuality, faith and loss, Erdrich uses the voices of each character to shed insight on how these issues affect not only themselves, but their town, family and history as well.

Spanning decades, and told with humor, darkness, and surprise, “The Beet Queen,” stands alone as one of this master’s greatest novels.

Patrick Dacey is the author of the story collection "We've Already Gone This Far" and the novel "The Outer Cape.” His stories have been featured in the Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, Guernica, Bomb magazine and Salt Hill among other publications. Originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he currently lives in Virginia.

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