Alden Mudge

Gayle Jessup White’s multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience “what racism felt like” until she was 13.

Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White’s scrupulous search to prove her family’s claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn’t begin her genealogical search until much later.

The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.

During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello’s first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution’s doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.

As a Black person working to prove her family’s claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White faced plenty of obstacles.

Lily King has been publishing fiction for more than 20 years, but in the last decade, she has earned a new level of acclaim and success with the two ravishing, highly praised novels Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. The latter landed on shelves two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bookstores (and just about everything else in the world), so she was unable to do much in the way of promotion. She has greater hopes—and a scheduled book tour—for her collection of 10 startling short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter

King’s new book takes the long view. The stories span the entirety of the 58-year-old writer’s career, and about half of them are new material, not previously published in magazines. In a call to her home in Maine, she explains that she fell in love with short stories in high school. She’s been keeping journals since fifth grade (and still has them all, lined up on three shelves in her office), but she didn’t dream of becoming a published writer until her discovery of the short story form. 

“I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

“Short stories are much harder [to write] than novels,” she says. “They can be more satisfying because you get to the end faster and don’t have to carry the despair for years and years. If you don’t like them, you can walk away from them. But you can’t make the mistakes that you can make in a novel. You can’t have those weird little spasms that a novel allows.”

The stories here are layered, incisive, sometimes dark and often funny. The opening tale, “Creature,” is about 14-year-old Carol, a nascent writer who is hired by a wealthy woman who lives in a mansion on a rocky New England coastal promontory. For two or three weeks in summer, Carol is to be the live-in babysitter for the woman’s very young grandchildren. Carol’s services are meant to free up the children’s mother, Kay, to spend more time with her own mother. Even before the arrival of Kay’s ne’er-do-well brother, Hugh, Carol observes the silences between mother and daughter. 

“Creature” exposes the divisions within families, the flinty coldness and deliberate, doting blindness of a certain kind of parent. In its surprising conclusion we understand the hard shift in awareness that will inform Carol’s future as a writer. But is it autobiographical? 

Not quite, explains King, though it is set in the town where she grew up: Manchester, Massachusetts, renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989. “I feel I was straddling a lot of different worlds,” she says of those days. “My parents got divorced. My mother and I were in an apartment downtown without a lot of money. My father was up in the house on the point. Then my father remarried and remarried again. My mother remarried and we moved to a different part of town in a big house. I was both a babysitter trying to make money and then a person who sometimes lived in a big house.”

Read our starred review of Five Tuesdays in Winter.

King’s experiences with this class dichotomy burn through this story collection, as do strong impulses instilled by years of babysitting, which she began at age 11 and continued until she was 32. “You step into somebody else’s family, and you have to intuit their whole ethos,” she says. “I’m interested in fitting in and not fitting in. How a situation in a house becomes very fraught. About the power, about everybody’s dysfunction.”

For the past few years, King and her family have lived in Portland, Maine, but the pandemic hit shortly after their move, so she still doesn’t feel completely settled. They previously lived in the smaller town of Yarmouth, but when her older daughter went off to college, her younger daughter lobbied for the family to move to Portland, “the big city.” 

Now their house is on a hill, and King’s top-floor office gives her an expansive view of city rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean. Her husband, a writer and fine arts painter, has a studio on the top floor as well. His mother, also an artist, painted the vivid work that constitutes the cover art of Five Tuesdays in Winter. The full painting graces King’s living room. 

Even after 20-plus years in Maine, King still expresses surprise to be living in New England. “When I left Massachusetts at the age of 18, I thought I would never, ever live in New England again,” she says. “And I didn’t for a long time. But I just kept kind of circling back and then leaving again and coming back.”

King’s life has taken her all over the U.S. and even to Valencia, Spain, but starting a family with her husband helped her make the decision to return. “It just seemed that I had to raise my kids with seasons,” she says. “With winter, with snow. I didn’t think it could happen because I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

The author of Euphoria and Writers & Lovers takes us into the memories that inspired a story in her terrific first collection.

Lily King has been rightly praised for two terrific recent novels, Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. But who knew she was such an exceptional short story writer? Maybe a few readers of Ploughshares or O Magazine, where a couple of the stories gathered in Five Tuesdays in Winter first appeared. But about half of these stories are new. All of them flash with brilliance.

King’s stories are mostly situated in New England in the 1980s, and her characters are often in adolescence, revealed at their moments of emerging into adult life and consciousness. Three tales are about would-be writers whose experiences shape them: a teen girl just beginning to consider writing, a woman in her early 20s trying to figure out her life, and, in the collection’s exhilaratingly surreal final story, “The Man at the Door,” a married mother being confronted about her audacity in thinking she has the right to write.

Lily King shares the New England memories that inspired one of the stories in her first collection.

King places these lynchpin stories at the beginning, middle and end of the collection. But four other stories are from the perspectives of young men. This includes the astonishing “When in Dordogne,” in which a boy’s wealthy and neglectful parents leave their house in the care of two college students for the summer. “As I came with the house, these two college boys were obliged to take care of me, too,” the son observes sardonically. A disaster in the making, right? As it turns out, no. The college boys are funny, sensitive and caring. The story is a soulful exploration of male sensitivity and love.

The very satisfying title story is about the fairly rigid owner of a used bookstore, his teenage daughter and the bookstore’s sole employee, who agrees to teach Spanish to her boss’s daughter. Over five Tuesdays, a tentative and then quite wonderful relationship develops among the three of them.

King’s observations are both sharp and generous. Five Tuesdays in Winter is a collection worth dipping into again and again.

King's sharp and generous observations make for a story collection worth dipping into again and again.

Jonathan Franzen, one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life (The Corrections, Freedom), does not disappoint with his terrific new novel, Crossroads.

The story opens just before Christmas 1971 and centers on the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in New Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. The head of the family, Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, a middle-aged associate pastor, is frustrated that his career has stalled, humiliated that a young, hip minister has snatched away control of the church’s youth group that he founded, tired of his wife and marriage, and enamored of a widowed parishioner.

The youth group is called Crossroads, and it’s just one of the many crossroads the family arrives at throughout this big, ambitious novel. The good reverend’s wife, Marion, is well aware of Russ’ infatuations and is filled with anger and self-loathing. Their daughter, Becky, the coolest girl in high school, becomes suddenly unmoored. Their middle son, Perry, is super smart and contemptuous of others; he’s also one of the biggest pot dealers in school. Eldest son Clem, the epitome of responsibility, is on his way home from college and seeking a reckoning with the father he has so long admired.

In some ways this family’s internal conflicts seem fairly typical. But as the novel progresses, we discover there are deeper histories at work. Some have to do with the basic assumptions of marriage and family life, while others reflect the tumult of the 1970s, when much of society was divided about America’s participation in the Vietnam War and young people especially struggled with issues of equality and justice for people of color and Native Americans. It is also no coincidence that the major sections of the novel are titled “Advent” and “Easter.” Each individual Hildebrandt grapples with matters of Christian faith and its place in their lives.

Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.

By turns funny and terrifying, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel of suburban family life does not disappoint.

At the center of Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, is Rich Gundersen and his family. At 51, Rich is an aging logger in Northern California’s redwood forest. As the novel opens, he seizes the opportunity to buy a stand of redwoods that includes the mythic 24-7 tree, the numbers signifying its monstrous width of 24 feet, 7 inches. Without telling his wife, Colleen, Rich uses all their savings for the down payment.

Colleen is 34, a midwife mourning the death of her newborn, disturbed by the number of infant deaths in their rural community and upset that Rich is unwilling to try for another baby. The couple’s only child, Chub, is about to enter kindergarten. Taught by his father, Chub is already knowledgeable about the creeks and roads in the forest that lead him home.

These are the first filaments of the magical web of story that Davidson weaves. The novel follows the family throughout 1977, a year of significant change. The National Park Service is slowly enlarging its holdings in the forest. The Gundersens’ house becomes part of the government takings for Redwood National Park, but the family will retain possession until Rich dies. Anti-logging activists have begun to harass loggers, and the local timber company is faltering, putting local livelihoods at risk.

There is so much that is right and particular about this novel. Rarely will a reader have such a tactile experience of life in a forest logging community as one receives here. Davidson also sensitively portrays the fraught relationship between the Indigenous tribe of Yuroks and the white members of the logging community. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Colleen that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street.

Davidson was born in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She's studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read about places where the story of American slavery lives on. This vital book originated in poetic meditations on the memorials of the Confederacy after Smith’s hometown of New Orleans removed many of those statues in 2017.

Smith began visiting some of the sites where enslaved people once lived and worked. He took the guided tour at Monticello that focuses on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. He traveled to New York City to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. He toured Louisiana’s notorious state prison at Angola, where formerly enslaved people were often held on the flimsiest of charges and forced to labor in its vast agricultural fields as part of the post-Reconstruction effort “to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.


At each stop, Smith’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and his response to the site give readers a visceral sense of place. He also reports on his conversations with tour guides, employees and other visitors. At Monticello, one person shares her journey of learning and unlearning history. It’s quite moving.

But at other locations, the guides and visitors are less willing to acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on our country or the intentional romanticization of the Confederacy. At Angola, there’s almost no acknowledgment that the land was worked by enslaved people as a plantation before it was converted into a state prison for mostly Black prisoners. The reader feels “the prickled heat” Smith experiences as the only Black person attending a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. There, Smith is an open, polite, somewhat nervous listener. Even in print, he doesn’t call out the people he speaks with. But ever the educator and poet, he lets the Confederate states’ own avowals destroy the animating myth of the Lost Cause.

Smith has an appreciation of nuance. He wields few cudgels here. And yet, How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!