REVIEW: Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce
1925: Chicago is the jazz capital of the world, and the Dreamland Café is the ritziest black-and-tan club in town. Honoree Dalcour is a sharecropper’s daughter, willing to work hard and dance every night on her way to the top. Dreamland offers a path to the good life, socializing with celebrities like Louis Armstrong and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. But Chicago is also awash in bootleg whiskey, gambling, and gangsters. And a young woman driven by ambition might risk more than she can stand to lose.
2015: Film student Sawyer Hayes arrives at the bedside of 110-year-old Honoree Dalcour, still reeling from a devastating loss that has taken him right to the brink. Sawyer has rested all his hope on this frail but formidable woman, the only living link to the legendary Oscar Micheaux. If he’s right–if she can fill in the blanks in his research, perhaps he can complete his thesis and begin a new chapter in his life. But the links Honoree makes are not ones he’s expecting…
Piece by piece, Honoree reveals her past and her secrets, while Sawyer fights tooth and nail to keep his. It’s a story of courage and ambition, hot jazz and illicit passions. And as past meets present, for Honoree, it’s a final chance to be truly heard and seen before it’s too late. No matter the cost…
Dear Ms. Bryce,
Wow – what a cover. I saw it and decided that I wanted to read this book. Then I read the blurb and thought – jackpot! This ought to be fabulous. Sadly, after I was finished, despite learning a great deal about what life was like for Blacks in 1920s Chicago, I felt that the pacing, the over explained yet unfinished plot points, and the unlikeable characters derailed what should have been a memorable book.
Two main characters anchor the dual stories – in 2015 young film student Sawyer is desperate to finish his PhD and he thinks he’s found what – or rather who – he needs in the person of 110 year old Honoree Dalcor. In the speakeasies of 1925 Chicago, Honoree clawed her way up from nothing as she dreamed of dancing in one of the flashy Black and Tan Clubs before heading to stardom in New York or Paris. Sawyer has discovered a box of items among which could be a reel of a lost silent film by a famous Black director with none other than Honoree Dalcor in it. He needs to question her about her past to finish his dissertation. But Honoree has never done what others want and she’ll make Sawyer work for what she’s willing to tell.
As the book begins, we see Honoree going to work at the low class club where she dances. Her boss is slime and his lout of a brother is worse. The other dancers are rough around the edges and just as self absorbed as Honoree but given the lives they lead and the odds against them as colored women in the 1920s, I can understand their attitudes and actions. If they don’t fight for what they want and need, they won’t get it. Honoree’s got a plan that will see her out of this place and she’s not going to let anyone stand in her way. Only, too many times instead of showing strength, Honoree acts stubbornly about something and ends up needing to be saved by her devoted circle of friends and lover.
She will – sometimes reluctantly – take a new and younger teen under her wing and through Honoree’s advice to Bessie, we see the hardscrabble life that women have faced at the hands of brutal men for eons. Bessie is an odd mix of naivete and ruthlessness. Around Honoree, Bessie is often annoyingly clingy yet when her unwanted pregnancy is revealed, she can turn both sulky and callously dismissive of the unborn baby.
Sawyer is an educated son of educated parents but tragedy has haunted the family. His mother is dead and his sister died in a way that Sawyer feels is his fault. His father is a well known academician whom Sawyer sees as dismissive of him and always jumping to think that he’s a screw up. The pressure is on Sawyer to talk to Honoree but once he barges into her room and basically demands that she speak to him, I was not impressed. Neither is the aid who helps Honoree or Honoree herself. I was happy when both took Sawyer down a peg yet instead of that making him rethink his attitude problem, it only makes him petulant and more impatient. Dude – who is asking whom for a favor here?
After the story lays some groundwork, Something Happens that puts 1925 Honoree in fear for her life. The scene is electric and I thought – hot damn, here we go. Only … we don’t. In fact except for a few brief references, this pretty much gets ignored for the next 100 pages. Instead the plot bogs down in a lot of convoluted nothing and the momentum that was building goes flat. The reason for the Something is never even actually explained well. What it was and why it became so deadly is a mystery to me. I know it had something to do with organized crime and money but beyond that – nope. Another character begs Honoree to give him something but I never understood what that thing meant or why people were willing to kill for it.
Another issue is that the 1925 historical sections would appear to be leading to something important and then would suddenly get interrupted with the modern parts. The sections with Sawyer became repetitive. He arrives, he questions Honoree or argues with her, she gets tired or refuses to answer, he leaves – rinse and repeat. His backstory is also left a bit unexplained with one important thing being totally dropped with no follow through. A major surprise is revealed late in the story. Though there are a few clues sprinkled along the way, I kept waiting for the reason behind this but we’re never told why it was done. At this point, the book concludes with a whole lot of telling instead of showing but still leaves some explanations out.
So ultimately, while I enjoyed reading about and learning about life for Blacks in the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville during the Jazz Age (there are some nice scenes with Lil Hardin Armstrong), these sections didn’t seem to advance the plot much. In the back of my mind, I was always waiting for that Something that threatened Honoree to take center stage again. While the day to day historical details were interesting, they felt more like filler. As I struggled through the middle part of the book, I kept impatiently waiting for a return to the outcome of the Threatening Event. I wanted to love this book but will have to settle for loving the cover instead. C-