Regular readers of my reviews will know that I’m always keen to find more books in which one or more protagonists is of a different race, ethnicity, or religion to those we find most commonly in the mainstream, particularly where historical fiction is concerned. This latest novel from Renee Rosen gives us an entire central cast who fit one or other of those boxes, with most of them coming from a wide spectrum of Jewish and/or African American backgrounds.
It’s not uncommon, of course, for minority communities to inhabit the same neighbourhoods; usually as one group becomes established and starts to spread out across a wider area of the metropolis, so a different, newly mobile, population begins to take their place. So it was with Chicago in the 1940s to the 1960s, in a situation I’ve seen over here as well. As the Jewish former immigrants became successful and began to seek better living environments, so the African Americans from further south and more rural areas began to move in, and. for a time at least, the two groups overlapped in one neighbourhood.
For Leeba and the Chess brothers, these years are a magical time to be growing into adulthood: surrounded by the music of their new neighbours and with an increasing ability to travel into other parts of the city in order to seek new jobs and new friends. Leeba finds work in a music store, while her friends become businessmen with first a club, hosting live music and more than the occasional bar fight, and then by owning an increasingly large share of a record company specialising in the music played by their Black neighbours. Red Dupree, meanwhile, travels north from New Orleans to seek fame as a musician. His path crosses first with Leeba and then with the Chess brothers, whom she soon finds herself working for at their new offices.
Red and Leeba begin a slow courtship, against the wishes of Leeba’s family, and Leeba encourages the Chess brothers to record Red’s songs. While other musicians find fame, Red encounters opposition to his relationship with Leeba from many of those living around the home they make together. Eventually this has severe consequences for his career, but that downturn drives him to take a forceful role in the Civil Rights Movement, and to bring Leeba along with him.
There’s a lot to like about this book, which mixes real people and real events with fictional characters and their lives. At times I felt myself yearning for either a more biographical account of some of the factual characters, or a story that concentrated more on the fictional protagonists, while keeping the historical characters in more cameo roles. Overall, however, I liked this book a lot, and it’s encouraged me to look more closely at aspects of US history I haven’t studied since school (what our timetable called Religious Studies often veered into Social History). As for Rosen, I’ll definitely continue to follow her releases, no matter what period or aspect of history she chooses to write about next.
In the middle of the twentieth century, the music of the Mississippi Delta arrived in Chicago, drawing the attention of entrepreneurs like the Chess brothers. Their label, Chess Records, helped shape that music into the Chicago Blues, the soundtrack for a transformative era in American History.
But, for Leeba Groski, Chess Records was just where she worked…
Leeba doesn’t exactly fit in, but her passion for music is not lost on her neighbor, Leonard Chess, who offers her a job at his new record company. What begins as answering phones and filing becomes much more as Leeba comes into her own as a songwriter and befriends performers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James. But she also finds love with a black blues guitarist named Red Dupree.
With their relationship unwelcome in segregated Chicago and the two of them shunned by Leeba’s Orthodox Jewish family, Leeba and Red soon find themselves in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and they discover that, in times of struggle, music can bring people together.
Read an excerpt.