Readers and Writers: Two historical novels and a hopeful look at politics

15January 2021

Two historical novels from different centuries and a hopeful look at politics are today’s good-to-read suggestions. plus news about some real hot ones coming out in the next few months.

“The Empty Cell” by Paulette Alden (Radiator Press, $15)

Paulette Alden, who taught memoir and fiction writing at the University of Minnesota, was born in Greenville, N.C., in 1947, the same year the city was riveted by the trial of a mob of white cab drivers accused of killing Willie Earle. They dragged the young black man from his jail cell, mutilated and killed him in retaliation for his alleged murder of another cabbie. The white drivers were found not guilty.

Although Alden grew up in Greenville and lives there now, she knew nothing about what happened to Willie Earle until 2011, when she came upon “Opera in Greenville,” by the British author Rebecca West, whom The New Yorker sent to Greenville to cover the trial.

“I was shocked and fascinated by what had occurred in my hometown; I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Alden writes in the Author’s Note of her new novel, “The Empty Cell,” inspired by this tragic event. She writes that the trial dialogue is from real-life, as are the names of the judge and other participants, except her four fictional characters whose lives are changed by Earle’s murder.

Lee Trammell was one of the cab drivers who helped kill the black man he felt deserved to die, and yet he’s tormented about what happened. Alma Stone is an African-American maid in Greenville who knew Willie as a boy. She leaves her alcoholic husband and her baby to find something better in life in New York, which doesn’t happen. Lawton Chastain, the gay attorney who prosecuted the cab drivers, leaves his wife after realizing he cannot hide his true self any longer. And Chastain’s privileged daughter, Betsy, has nightmares after accompanying her father to see the cell from which Willie was dragged. Betsy, too, ends up in New York where she has an affair with an African-American man who introduces her to nightlife in Harlem, where whites and Blacks mingle and dance..

Alden evokes life in Jim Crow Greenville in a way that makes readers understand there was a line between white and Black people that might have been invisible to outsiders but was absolutely understood by people of both races. Black maids cannot ask for a raise, for instance, because if one of the “white ladies” agreed, the other rich women would be angry. And although Alma can cook and wash dishes for the Chastain family, she has her own bathroom and utensils. Yet when Betsy is in trouble in New York, it is Alma who comes to her rescue. Another thread in the story is the strength of black women such as Bessie, Alma’s mother, who cares for her granddaughter, Pretty. As the book nears its end, we meet Pretty as a young woman active in the civil rights movement, as is her father, Alma’s now-sober husband.

Some readers have accused Alden of writing characters who are stereotypes, but we have to remember that what is a stereotype to us in the 21st century was real life in the segregated South after World War II. Readers of historical fiction have to be able to imagine a story’s era.

A few internet posters were put off by Alden’s use of the “n” word. She anticipates that criticism in her Author’s Note: “As disgusting as the term is, unfortunately it was in common use in the Jim Crow South. My fictional character, Lee Trammell, for example, being part of a lynch mob in 1947, would have used that slur. It’s his, not mine. I don’t use the word lightly, but I believe I do use it accurately.”

Alden is the author of two collections of autobiographical short stories, “Feeding the Eagles” and “Unforgettable”; a memoir, “Crossing the Moon”; and a novel, “The Answer to Your Question.”

“Vows” by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally (University of Minnesota Press, $17.95)

Now we turn to medieval Norway with “Vows,” first published in 1925 and now in the first new English translation in nearly a century.

It begins with a dying father giving his son, Olav Audunsson, to an old friend, Steinfinn Toresson, who promises to raise the boy as his foster son and eventually marry him to his daughter, Ingunn. The children grow up as brother and sister until they are teenagers, when their feelings change and they seal their relationship by having sex. They are pledged to one another, and they don’t think they are doing anything wrong, especially since everyone on the estate knows they were meant to be husband and wife.

Soon the young people discover they are in trouble with their families and the church. They have sinned by joining together without reading of the banns and a wedding feast. Kinship is important in those days and Ingunn’s uncle and other male relatives believe she is disgraced and that she is marrying below her station if they accept Olav, even though he has an estate in the south.

Undset, who won a Nobel Prize for the tetralogy (four related books) about Olav Audunsson, is a leisurely storyteller. Church and family legalities faced by the young couple take up about a third of the book, and you might be tempted to stop reading. Don’t do it. In the following section, Olav commits murder he considers justified and leaves the country to attach himself to a great lord, while Ingunn waits for him for 10 years. She is neither wife nor maiden, and by the last third of the book when things get exciting, she has committed a sin that nearly consumes her. She is described by one man as being like a frightened fawn, and she does seem to lack strength until she faces her guilt and vows to do penance. Olav, meanwhile, must decide what to do about her sin, which involves him because they have finally been granted permission to marry. Since this is the first of the four books, it isn’t a spoiler to reveal it ends with a kiss.

Thirteenth-century Norway is a blend of pagan and Christian. Women have no rights, and the male head of an extended family makes all decisions. It is a world we rarely are invited into, and if you have patience, you will be rewarded.

“Better Politics Please: 35 Stories of Politicians Who Value Hope Over Hate” by Kevin D. Hendricks, illustrated by Carolyn Swiszcz (Monkey Outta Nowhere, $14.99)

President Trump is about to leave office after being impeached for the second time, debates rage about the insurrection at the national Capitol. There couldn’t be a better time in this divided nation for a book about politicians who value hope.

“Better politics doesn’t mean we all hold hands and sing together,” the author writes. “But it does mean we step off the battlefield and see one another as fellow Americans.” He advocates starting a conversation instead of “picking a fight.”

The book begins with N.J Akbar, the first openly LGBTQ Muslim elected in Ohio, and concludes with Erin Stewart, at 26 the  youngest mayor to be elected by voters in New Britain, Conn. More well-known politicians quoted include U.S. senators Cory Booker (“We need a revival of civil grace”), Lisa Murkowski (“Consensus should not be a dirty word”), and Ben Sasse (“Start from the assumption that our opponents are like us”). There are also quotes from those no longer with us, including Ronald Reagan, John McCain, John F. Kennedy and civil rights champion John Lewis.

The author lives in West St. Paul and owns a writing and editing company. A blogger since 1998, he has written several books and runs the hyper-local news site West St. Paul Reader.


Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s “ANTITRUST: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age,” will be published in April by Knopf. The publisher describes the book as “a call to action for changes to U.S. competition policy, examining the history of America’s antimonopoly movement from the Gilded Age to today.” Klobuchar is the lead Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights.

Stephen King’s novel “Later” is out March 2 from Hard Case Crime. It’s about a boy with powers who helps a New York detective hunt down a killer who threatens to strike from beyond the grave. Watch also for Alex Finlay’s “Every Last Fear” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which is on just about every Best Of list for 2021. A man’s family is killed and he returns to his small town to bury them where the citizens are hostile. Are the family’s deaths connected to his brother, in prison for the murder of his girlfriend and subject of a documentary that claimed he was unfairly convicted?

Lithub website listed among its most-anticipated books Minnesotan Ben Percy’s speculative thriller “The Ninth Metal (The Comet Cycle, #1)” in which debris from a comet lands in northern Minnesota with a metal that has energy-renewing potential, touching off a modern gold rush. Coming in June from Minotaur Books.

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