REVIEW: In the Face of the Sun by Denny S. Bryce
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement amidst an America convulsed by the 1960s, a pregnant young woman and her brash, profane aunt embark upon an audacious road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles to confront a decades-old mystery from 1920’s Black Hollywood in this haunting novel of historical fiction from the author of Wild Women and the Blues.
“A candy apple red Ford Mustang is parked outside my building. Unmistakable. My Aunt Daisy, the driver, is an audacious woman that no one in our family actually speaks to. They only speak about her—and not glowingly. Still, she is part of my escape plan…”
1928, Los Angeles: The newly-built Hotel Somerville is the hotspot for the city’s glittering African-American elite. It embodies prosperity and dreams of equality for all—especially Daisy Washington. An up-and-coming journalist, Daisy anonymously chronicles fierce activism and behind-the-scenes Hollywood scandals in order to save her family from poverty. But power in the City of Angels is also fueled by racism, greed, and betrayal. And even the most determined young woman can play too many secrets too far…
1968, Chicago: For Frankie Saunders, fleeing across America is her only escape from an abusive husband. But her rescuer is her reckless, profane Aunt Daisy, still reeling from her own shattered past. Frankie doesn’t want to know what her aunt is up to so long as Daisy can get her to LA—and safety. But Frankie finds there’s no hiding from long-held secrets—or her own surprising strength.
Daisy will do whatever it takes to settle old scores and resolve the past—no matter the damage. And Frankie will come up against hard choices in the face of unexpected passion. Both must come to grips with what they need, what they’ve left behind—and all that lies ahead …
CW – racism – including the (off page) violent death of a Black child, domestic violence, police brutality, drug usage, the “N” word is in one of the tips Daisy gives to her reporter friend.
Dear Ms. Bryce,
Last year I read “Wild Women and the Blues” and liked it but still had some issues with it. The blurb for “In the Face of the Sun” let me know it is another dual-timeline book (something I sometimes struggle with) but it sounded so interesting that I knew I wanted to read it. This is a book in which the characters come alive. It’s the plot that sometimes misses.
Split between alternating chapters of 1928 Los Angeles and a 1968 road trip between Chicago and California, the story took me back in time to speakeasies, Civil Rights movements, Vietnam, Black Hollywood, and Brown Broadway. But be warned that there is also racism, domestic violence, police brutality, and drug usage.
1968: Frankie has finally had enough abuse from her husband. She could tolerate him slapping and beating her but now that she’s pregnant, she knows she has to get out and this time actually stay out instead of returning to Jackson like she’s done before. Her notorious Aunt Daisy, whom Frankie just met only weeks ago, has promised to pick Frankie up and drive her to the bus depot so Frankie can return to her estranged mother in Los Angeles but things don’t go as planned and soon Frankie finds herself on the road with chain smoking Daisy and a white man. In 1968, that combo could land them in a lot of trouble.
1928: Daisy had to drop out of college when the news of her Uncles’ deaths in a dam collapse causes Daisy’s mother to have a heart attack as well as sends her back into depression that has haunted her before. Daisy has secured jobs for herself and her younger sister at the only Black owned, financed, and staffed luxury hotel in Los Angeles. Daisy hopes to earn enough to get better treatment for her mother and to further that, she keeps an ear open for any gossip she can pass on, for a price, to a journalist friend.
As both stories progress, past issues and secrets will be revealed against the backdrop of upheaval as Blacks first work for and then fight for Civil Rights and fair treatment in a world determined to keep them in their place.
In 1928 steely Daisy is determined to achieve her dream of being a journalist as well as care for her beloved mother. There is a truly horrific tragedy in her past even before the recent loss of more family members. She stays within the lines and tries to work within the system to get her slice of the American dream that seems to finally be more within reach of Blacks. Daisy has five irons in the fire at all times, works double shifts, tries to look after her younger sister – even if Henrietta resents Daisy’s interference, and refuses to consider the fact that the tips and information she listens for and then passes on could harm anyone.
Frankie is angry at her Aunt Daisy for showing up and making a scene as Frankie is trying to sneak away from her abusive husband. No one is going to miss the red Mustang or vibrant Daisy and when Jackson does appear in the scene, Frankie is grateful that no one but she – and Jackson – sees the switchblade Daisy pulls on him. Conservative Frankie has done what women are supposed to do in getting married and staying with a man even though he uses her as a punching bag. But Daisy will have none of that and it astonishes Frankie as well as angers her in how dismissive Daisy can be of conventions and social situations. While Daisy still uses the Green Book to find locations where Blacks can safely buy gasoline, use the bathrooms, or sleep for the night she has no problems with bringing along Tobey, a young white man she knows, – something which at first terrifies and infuriates Frankie. A white man in the car with two Black women in 1968? Yeah, nothing can go wrong with that.
As with “Wild Women,” I learned a lot about the vibrant Black community of the 1920s – this time in Los Angeles instead of Chicago. Little bits of historical details are baked into the narrative. This time though, the alternate timeline is not the current day but the tumultuous era of the late 1960s. Over the course of both timelines, I watched first Daisy and then Frankie change. In a lot of ways, Frankie is like Daisy initially was before The Event that changes Daisy and starts her on the road to the person she has become forty years later in 1968. By the end of the book, Frankie has let loose a bit and decided to not take any shit from the man who vowed to love her but who also hits her and orders her around.
I liked both the timelines fairly equally in this book which is something I had problems with in the first one. Each one engaged me and I eagerly kept reading and didn’t mind so much switching back and forth. If I had to choose, I’d pick the 1968 one as the other one had a slightly slower pace. And yet part of me wanted to read those missing 40 years of Daisy standing up and taking no fucks from anyone anymore. As she and Tobey talk during the road trip, they glancingly mention events and memories that they share that sounded fascinating but which are never explored in any depth.
Things were going well until unfortunately the plot starts fraying at the end. Events that occurred 40 years ago are the driving factor for Daisy wanting to make the road journey that she does. There is Something that finally propels her to do this but given how fiery and intense she was about it now, I wanted to know why she hadn’t followed up on the earlier things before this. Apparently she hasn’t spoken to several people from her past since 1928. It’s mentioned for two people that Daisy didn’t know where they were until shortly before the trip started but she did know where one person was and that person also knew some key information that could have cleared up the reason for their 40 year grudge. Finally there is last time jump to 1990 when we see two characters reconciled after what is clearly a Big Mis had separated them but again, no part of the reconciliation is shown or mentioned. Based on the severity of the misunderstanding, I needed a bit of closure for it.
The book is filled with complex people who are flawed. The eras are well drawn and in both I wanted to know what was going to happen next. If not for the slightly dragging pace of one and the somewhat random way some threads were tied up in the other, my grade would be higher. B-