Reviewed for Front Street Reviews
First posted Aug 26, 2009
Ken Coleman has put together a wonderfully historic pseudo-biography that reads like a true interview of Queenie Jones, "most famous, notorious, and controversial black female entertainer of all time". I personally could not tell if this was a fictional account of an actual person or straight fiction. This centenarian has seen it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly, but mostly in reverse order. Being a black girl in the south in the early 1900s she witnesses the worst of America's history with the lynchings and murders of black people just for being there. Some of her story is reminiscent of that of Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Josephine Baker and later even Eartha Kitt and more, in particular finding a safe place to perform in France. But I am ahead of myself here.
Take a small girl who is very close to and admiring of her preacher father, only to lose him when he was caught by white men when he went after the light coloured boys who raped her at the young age of 14. Queenie was left with feelings of shame, guilt, and pregnant as well. As she says "I deserved it. I was being punished for being forward with boys. God was teaching me a lesson, one that took me another fifty years to learn." This is the way her life began, seeing children and men hung, stumbling over corpses, just because they were black.
This is not necessarily the story of white vs. black though. This is a story of love, of growth, of fame and fortune, and finally peace. This is a running history of America as told from the lips of one person who lived it all, the complete century. But it is also a story of awakening.
For what seems an unfathomable reason and is not explained in the early part of the book, Queenie has asked a young Jewish writer to come and write her memoirs. Steven Eidleberg can not understand why she has asked for him, and the most she would tell him was that one of his stories showed insight and compassion, she called it brilliant, Pulitzer prize material. But throughout the book he can not shake the feeling that more is involved.
The entire interviews are held in the hospital in secret while Queenie reminisces but grows weaker with every day. The life she led as a great, but raunchy, entertainer through the thirties to the sixties are a revelation of how many did live. A big woman with a bigger presence and amazing talent, her anger and lack of trust through those years made her tough and scrappy, and placed her in situations where only her great talent and fame saved her.
The interaction between these two extraordinarily different people is a marvel to behold. Steven feels spellbound by the story and believes this book will be his best writing ever. A story that "needed to be told". But his devotion to both the story and to Queenie herself causes a lot of rumbling in the Jewish community and gradually affects his marriage, but he can not let go. So much of the history of the black people he had very little idea of because it was virtually ignored in the Jewish community, and yet there are commonalities too, both races ostracized for different reasons. Both are outcasts, and both are in a way segregated. The book gives the reader a lot to ponder on these relationships and on the history of both. Understanding how the blacks accepted their lot is very psychological and I for one found these comparisons and reasonings of great interest.
The book is packed with famous names in the black music genre and the author has made it all feel very real and intense, and yet there is a full retinue of feelings described and eventually dealt with as the laws changed. There is an open joy in Queenie and yet she could fist-fight with the best of them. She could pack any venue with her talent. She survived the decades in whatever manner she was able. She was still performing into her 70s, was internationally famous, and always controversial and confrontational. A period of time comes into her life that brings her into a relationship that changes her completely.
What more can I say, there are surprises through the book, but especially toward the end. There is humour, great insight, an unusual but close connection between the writer and the singer as he writes as fast as he can to get the full story before she passes away. There is a wiseness in Queenie of age that probes Stevens insecurities and blind acceptance of the life he leads as a Jew. I particularly enjoyed one quote "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear". How often true. The book is very conversational in nature and I really enjoyed reading it. I feel I learned from it too. Mr. Coleman has done a remarkable job of writing the story in the voice of Queenie and of Steven, so much so that it is difficult to remember it is a fictional story.