Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson

blackberries

Wilkinson’s first book is a collection of short stories—perfect for my attention span just now! These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself.

In some stories, such as “Tipping the Scales”, we meet women who can’t be bothered by society’s conventions. A big woman, “not sloppy fat, though,” Josephina Childs has “sure had her hands full in the men department most all her life.” All her life she’s been aware of how “the whole town ‘bout tripped over” themselves to find out what was going on with her mother in the house Ethel’s lover build for them. So when Josephina wants children, she goes ahead and has them. I could hardly wait to find out what happens as she charts her own path among the gossiping townsfolk.

A few stories are from a man’s point of view, such as “Mine” in which Joe Scruggs complains about his former girlfriend Racine. She’d left him when she found out he was cheating on her. Now he sees that she has cut the long, straightened hair he’d loved in favor of short natural hair. Worse than that, she’s had breast reduction surgery and “black women do not get their breasts worked on.” The voice is pitch perfect as Joe thinks about what he sees as Racine’s insult to him and about Darlene, the woman he cheated with, now his wife. It’s a strong indictment of a man’s idea of ownership.

Wilkinson’s use of voice carries each of these stories. Without resorting to dialect, she captures the individual rhythms of her characters’ thoughts and speech. In “Mules” she finds just the right voice for a naïve girl, just starting to develop and learning to navigate the complicated and risky world of men. In “Deviled Eggs” Wilkinson gives voice to a young girl who is dragged along when her mother goes to her job as a domestic servant and has a startling lesson in racism from the elderly white woman who thinks she is doing the child a favor. In “Need” we meet three characters in a café, two women embarking on a difficult conversation and their male waiter, each with a distinctive voice.

I’ve been thinking recently about the shape of short stories, how they begin, how they end. The variety of story shapes is this collection is part of what makes it so enticing. Some stories spiral back to their beginning, while others rise to a new understanding. Many for me ended in ways that surprised me, taking a direction I hadn’t expected: Wilkinson displaying the penchant for independence we see in many of her characters. I love being surprised!

In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Do you like reading short stories? Can you recommend a collection?

Trip Wire, by Charlotte Carter

tripwire

Another mystery, this time set in Chicago in December of 1968. It’s the end of a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Summer of Love, and in Chicago itself the violence around the Democratic National Convention.

Seeking independence, Cassandra has left the home of her well-off grandaunt and granduncle to live in a multiracial commune in a questionable part of town. She’s in her early 20s, cutting college classes to read books on politics and social justice. When she met Wilt, a charismatic Black man, she found a friend who was on the same wavelength, and was delighted when he encouraged her to join the commune where he and his white partner Mia lived along with several others.

She delights in her new freedom and friends, happy to have found a family she has chosen rather than the over-protective relatives who took her in after her parents’ death. There are tensions, not only family issues but also marijuana use perhaps affecting her schoolwork, sexual freedom coming up against learned ideas about relationships, decisions about who else to admit into the commune.

Then they discover the brutally murdered bodies of two of their members. As Cassandra tries to untangle why they were killed, she is confronted by how little she knows about her new friends, while navigating the questionable tactics of the police and resisting her family’s attempts to make her come home.

The secrets and hidden agendas that make mysteries so fascinating are well-constructed here. The story kept me guessing, surprising me at times. I also found Cassandra a realistic and intriguing woman, simultaneously familiar and different, someone I enjoyed spending time with. All the characters come alive, not just their flaws and fine points, but also the different worlds they straddle.

Carter succeeds in capturing this period, which I remember only too clearly. Seeing it again through the eyes of a young Black woman, with all the additional hurdles and advantages, fascinated me. For example, much as most of us hippies distrusted the police, a person of color has more factors when deciding whether to call them when a crime is committed.

And thinking of the differences and similarities of the country during that election and the current one has given me a slightly different perspective on today. Change is hard, and the Age of Aquarius which once seemed within reach is something we are still seeking.

Anyone who is interested in a glimpse of what the 1960s were like, looking beyond the memes and stereotypes, will enjoy this book, as will mystery readers. I’ll be looking for more books in Carter’s Cook County mystery series.

What do you look for in a mystery series?