American Blues: A Novel
By twelve years old, Lily Vida Wallace was aware of the inherent racism and prevailing hatred of Black people that characterized the majority of citizens of her hometown of Greenville, Texas, although she was mostly able to block such horrors from her mind after leaving for college and starting a new life in New York City. However, some ten years after her initial recognition of racial injustice, her job with the Episcopal Church, an organization known for helping civil rights activists, forces her to confront knowledge and events from her past and to take a stance against contemporary, ongoing race- and gender-based violence and hatred.
When Black church sexton Sam Jefferson is dragged from his bed and later lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan in a small South Carolina town, much of America is shocked by what happened, especially since many among the White community naively considered such violence to be a thing of the past by the early 1970s. For their part, Lily and her boss Hugh Lovelle are dispatched to South Carolina as representatives of the Presiding Bishop, their task being to assist the local church community and the Jefferson family in particular to make spiritual sense of Sam’s death.
Lily’s experiences in South Carolina prompt her to take stock of her life, which she has allowed to become too comfortable through closing her eyes to the suffering of others and to the discrimination that she, as a woman, faces within the church. She determines to do her bit to achieve equality by pursuing ordination as an Episcopal priest. This change in her perspective is ultimately reflected in the spectacular unravelling of her engagement to fiancé Ethan Bierstadt and later in the development of a relationship with Black attorney Rodney Davis. Yet, despite Lily’s best efforts, the threat of violence is never far away.
Polly Hamilton Hilsabeck’s American Blues follows Lily over the course of several decades as both she and the country as a whole evolve, confront, and attempt to reconcile with the sins of the past. She is perhaps not a natural radical or freedom fighter, but personal circumstances force her to take a stand, both for herself and for those she cares about. Lily is an engaging and relatable character, as are most of the supporting cast too, although their dialogue is sometimes rather stilted. Their personal travails take place against a backdrop of massive societal tension and change, and Hilsabeck does a great job of balancing the larger themes against the smaller, more personal ones.
While Lily’s goal of becoming a priest proves achievable, albeit certainly not without hardship and controversy, the specter of racism that haunts the narrative proves far more difficult to overcome. Lily’s personal experience highlights how, while individuals and society in general can tackle prejudices, there will always be some who are too consumed by hatred to be reached. Given such truths, American Blues is not without shocking and violent scenes, although the story still conveys a sense of optimism and hope throughout.
|Author||Polly Hamilton Hilsabeck|
|Page Count||368 pages|
|Publisher||She Writes Press|
|Bookshop.org||Buy this Book|