I’ve just enjoyed a fresh new slice of historical fiction, one I highly recommend you snag and enjoy for yourself. It is Seven Days in May by Jennifer Luitweiler, the same author who penned Run With Me which I reviewed about a year and a half ago.
Once again, Dinner Club With a Reading Problem was dazzled and blessed to receive Jen as our guest of honor. Last Friday night she endured our girlish antics, warmed the room with her smile, and shed wonderful insight to this newly released book, her most recent labor of love.
Seven Days in May is a quick (237 pages) but absorbing read about the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including ramp-up action before that. It was an interesting and tumultuous time right between Emancipation and World War II, a time when race inequality, violence, and the oil boom in this part of the country both revealed and tested social norms.
Tulsa was the Magic City that erupted from the soil just like the oil that could make anyone, regardless of color or creed, a millionaire. With rapid prosperity come major growing pains. With so many people spilling into this boom town, we may guess that the riot was inevitable. It is against this setting that our story begins.
This novel tells the stories of several people, two families in particular, living the ground-level realities of this churning social atmosphere. Luitweiler does a wonderful job tethering the historical facts to completely relatable human nature. She illustrates cold, hard headlines with colorful personalities, family drama, and character background that, if they don’t make you sympathetic to the villains, at least make you step back to see them as part of a whole. Her storytelling makes it impossible to read about race division with a cold heart. The emotional landscape of the book is not only believable; it’s palpable. Absolutely engaging.
The two main characters are coming-of-age girls named Mercy and Grace. These names, by the way, are just perfect for their respective characters. One is white, one is black, and their families are intertwined in both common and fascinatingly uncommon ways. One of the elements of this book I most enjoyed was the author’s skill at so fully plumbing the feminine depth. The way these girls and their mothers relate to each other, especially their non verbal communication, was a long, soft poem to the reader.
In our conversations with Jen we learned that the feminine angle was a strong motivator for writing the book in the first place. Where were the women of this time? Who were the wives and daughters of the men in the newspapers? She did an incredible job conjuring up the feminine energies.
Is Seven Days in May suitable for all young readers? Maybe not. The story keeps its head well above graphic sensationalism, but still it contains violence and even one rape scene. It almost has to, as this chapter of history was not pretty. One thing I want to mention here is the author’s deliberate choice to not write with racially specific dialect. She explained to our book club that since it was not in her natural comfort zone to write it accurately, she did not want to risk using it inappropriately. I respect that. She handled so much delicate material with great care, this included.
Once again, I am pressed to say that this level of historical fiction is what will get the younger generation to learn from the past. It may also be exactly what gets the older generation to discuss it. (As Oklahomans we were all a bit stunned to realize how little we have been taught on this chapter of our own history.) Happily, we understand that several schools in Tulsa, where the author and her husband are raising their beautiful flock, are circulating the book as an annex to textbook curriculum. They are also accepting Jen as a guest speaker. How wonderful! What an incredible opportunity those classrooms have been given. Let’s all hope together that the material sparks important passions in the students there. Let’s also hope together that this generation learns something important from the hard truths of our communal past.
If you have time for one more hope, let it be that Jen’s work is picked up by the Oprah network. The same week that her book was released, the powers that be descended on Tulsa to collect interviews and do research on the 1921 race riots for a full-blown television special. We are all pulling for her that Seven Days gets exposure, of course, but also that the wide audience Oprah enjoys will benefit from Jen’s hard and loving endeavor.
Anger is the strangest thing. Anger is visiting a horrifying fun house, without the fun.
It is like wearing glasses in the wrong prescription or walking through life upside down.
It is an ugly mask, a veneer of venom that covers the open sore of hurt, disappointment,
betrayal, or misunderstanding.
Anger is alive and destructive like no war ever was.
~Jen Luitweiler in Seven Days in May
How perfect that Mama Kat invited us to share a book review this week.
Click over to her cool site to see lots of other great posts.
Not the least of which is her own story about easy, comfortable friendship. I loved it.