Many of us feel helpless to fight against and prevent the myriad atrocities going on across the globe. Whether it involves governmental suppression of rights and freedoms, evil corporate greed, or outright brutal violence, there’s a lot of change that needs to happen and not enough people working for that change. Activists feel despair and powerlessness just as much as anyone, but what sets them apart from the mass is that they do something about it. These three new works of fiction in this week’s book club star activists both eager and reluctant, but with one thing in common: a desperate need to reach their goals and make the world a better place.
1. The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash ($27): Ella May Wiggins is an unlikely activist. She’s 28 and suffering through endless manual labor at a textile mill in Bessemer County, North Carolina. A single mother raising four children on her own after her husband’s desertion, she wouldn’t seem to have time to come up for air, let alone help spearhead a movement. Ella has had enough, though, after months of feverishly trying to make ends meet for herself and her family, watching children lose fingers on the machine and enforced racial separation on the line.
When a call for unionization starts to gain traction, Ella travels to the next town over to listen to a rally. Moved by what she hears, she takes the stage to sing a song she’s written and quickly becomes the darling of the cause. Soon the county sees civil unrest, with the union movement’s adherents being derided as “Bolshevists” by the establishment, who are terrified that the desperation of hundreds of oppressed workers may actually lead to revolution.
Ella’s ideas, however, may even be too radical for some of her fellows in the movement, particularly because she believes that African-American workers like her friend Violet should have a seat at the table and equal rights in the workplace. “She didn’t care that her neighbors were colored; it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because there was nowhere else for her to go… Ella knew that the work she did was dirty, dangerous work, knew that the nine dollars she earned for a seventy-two-hour workweek wasn’t worth the work itself. But she did it because there was nothing else to do.” Cash, bestselling author of This Dark Road to Mercy and A Land More Kind Than Home, based her new novel off an actual textile mill strike in 1929. True to the book’s ideals of equality, she lets us see the events through the perspective of not just Ella, but several other diverse voices.
2. Swearing Off Stars by Danielle Wong ($17): Wong’s debut novel mixes activism and romance, as Amelia (Lia) Cole is exposed to new ideas and new love while studying at Oxford University in the 1920s. Already something of a trailblazer as one of the first women studying at the venerable institution (women still aren’t allowed to matriculate properly with the men, and Lia is only there for a year), Lia is encouraged to think even bigger by her new friend, aspiring actress Scarlett Daniels. Daniels is an outspoken proponent of the new movement for gender equality, and her passion is fascinating to Lia. In fact, everything about Scarlett fascinates Lia, and she soon finds herself in a head-over-heels romance with the other woman.
“Later that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about Scarlett. I pulled the coral ribbon out of my hair and turned it over in my fingers. I didn’t even understand what I was feeling. I pictured her outfit, perfectly tailored and polished. Her manicured nails, a ruby red to match the modern dress she was wearing. Her fashionable book bag, made of brown leather and filled with who-knows-what? She was gorgeous, obviously. Scarlett looked like the lead actress in a big-time picture, with an arresting smile and bright eyes to boot. But it was something more – perhaps her inimitable attitude. I’d spoken with her for all of five minutes, but already knew she was incomparable.” Unfortunately, Lia’s bravery and newfound freedom only go so far; it’s frightening enough to be stopped by the police on campus just for holding a flyer promoting equal rights for female students, let alone worrying about being caught in a same-sex relationship. Lia panics, and Lia bails, leaving Scarlett to protest alone.
Years later, Scarlett is a successful actress and Lia is filled with regret. When she receives a letter that ignites her hopes, she’ll begin an adventure to search for her former flame. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that; like the search for gender equality, the road to reconciliation is paved with setbacks, disappointments, and the possibility it will never happen the way you want it to.
3. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon ($16): “Should is for weaklings. Why would we care about such a thing when already nothing is how it should be on this cursed ship? Should won’t make it so you don’t got to cut off my foot, will it? It sure won’t turn the heat back on, or kill the man who thought to turn it off in the first place. Should disappeared three hundred years ago when our old home went gone. There’s no such thing as supposed to in space. Didn’t your meema ever teach you that?” If the other two novels on this week’s list detail activism from almost a century ago, Solomon’s book gives us some badly needed future activism. Of course, while the time periods may change, the issues of race and gender have a strange tendency of staying the same: The need to treat others with equality and dignity is often ignored by those in power, whether it’s 1920 or 2220.
Aster lives on the HSS Matilda, a ship that has traveled for generations from a destroyed Earth seeking a new “promised land.” Unfortunately, life aboard the Matilda doesn’t offer much promise if you are lower-class, female, and black; you’re stuck on the lower decks in a situation eerily similar to the American South in slavery’s heyday. You’re subject to intense rules, judged by a bizarre and impossible moral standard, insulated at every turn, and forced into labor.
Aster resents every minute of this (and why shouldn’t she), but her skill in medicine leads her life on a different journey. Friend to the ship’s Surgeon General, Aster is called to consult on the treatment of the colony’s sovereign, who suffers from a mysterious illness. The mystery leads Aster to find out some pretty horrifying truths, fueling her desire to overthrow a cruel system and live the way things should be. Reviewers and authors have praised Solomon’s writing, calling it reminiscent of Colson Whitehead and Octavia Butler, but it just might be revolutionary on its own.
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