A new American classic: a dynamic tale of triumph against the odds and the compelling story of one woman’s struggle for equality that belongs alongside Jazz by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Ivoe Williams, the precocious daughter of a Muslim cook and a metalsmith from central-east Texas, first ignites her lifelong obsession with journalism when she steals a newspaper from her mother’s white employer. Living in the poor, segregated quarter of Little Tunis, Ivoe immerses herself in printed matter as an escape from her dour surroundings. She earns a scholarship to the prestigious Willetson College in Austin, only to return over-qualified to the menial labor offered by her hometown’s racially-biased employers.
Ivoe eventually flees the Jim Crow South with her family and settles in Kansas City, where she and her former teacher and lover, Ona, found the first female-run African American newspaper, Jam! On the Vine. In the throes of the Red Summerthe 1919 outbreak of lynchings and race riots across the MidwestIvoe risks her freedom, and her life, to call attention to the atrocities of segregation in the American prison system.
Skillfully interweaving Ivoe’s story with those of her family members, LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s Jam! On the Vine is both an epic vision of the hardships and injustices that defined an era and a moving and compelling story of a complicated history we only thought we knew.
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
LaShonda Katrice Barnett was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1974 and grew up in Park Forest, Illinois. She is the author of a story collection and editor of the volumes: I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft (2007) and Off the Record: Conversations with African American & Brazilian Women Musicians (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2014). For short fiction she received the College Language Association Award and the New York Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Artist Grant. Recent awards for writing and historical fiction research include the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities & National Endowment for the Humanities grant #45.129; Mystic Seaport’s Munson Institute of Maritime Culture Paul Cuffe Memorial Fellowship; Sewanee Writers Conference Tennessee Williams Scholarship and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Advanced Fiction fellowship. A graduate of the University of Missouri, she received an M.A. in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College and the Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary. She has taught literature and history at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College and Brown University.
Read an Excerpt
Ivoe liked to carry on about all she could do. Still, how to mend a broken promise had her beat. She had given her word not to go beyond the pantry, passing many dull hours there while Momma finished her duties in the kitchen. At six, seven, eight, obedience was easy. The trouble with nine came when Miss Susan entered the kitchen to tell Momma the dinner menu. With her low, husky voice and tall, boyish frame, Miss Susan made a handsome woman. She had a moon face full of light freckles and cheeks that called to mind two perfect peaches. Her eyes, and the creases that framed them, crinkled up to slits whenever she smiled. Miss Susan laid the Starkville Enterprise on the table. "I bet you can't read these headlines for me." Ivoe hitched up her legs on the lower rung of the stool and cleared her throat: "'Germans No Longer Love Us: Their Sympathies Are All on the Side of Spain' and 'The Senate Will Have to Yield on Sugar and Wool ...'" A relieved smile drew across Momma's face as Miss Susan nodded contentedly. "I suppose this means you're almost grown. Grown folks always read while they wait." Ivoe wanted to tell Miss Susan the terrible job of waiting belonged mostly to children and none of the children she knew owned anything to read.
On a good day Miss Susan left the paper behind while Momma cooked but not today. Ivoe sucked in her breath, ducked past her mother, and crept down the hall to the library, grateful for the crimson carpet between her broken shoes and the fine wood floors. The Starks had money. Something to do with cattle, corn, and cotton. It was all around her in the books — more numerous than the schoolhouse's stash and better looking. After May-Belle, Papa, and them, Ivoe loved books best. Books were a friend to anyone who opened them. Blowing a whirligig to make the sails go 'round or talking up a storm to a corn-husk doll was all right for passing the time, but you never went anywhere new or met anyone special like you did in the pages of a book. In Golden-Haired Gertrude and Old Mother Hubbard she found steady companions and had traveled as far as Arabia without ever leaving Little Tunis.
How to get a book home was something Ivoe thought about a lot. Books were hard to steal; books had to be carried; books could not go missing in a house for too long a time. Newspapers were easy. She could slide one under her clothes and walk the half mile home while its reader would think it mislaid. The scheme had worked plenty times before, but that day the newspaper was not in its usual place or on any shelf she could reach. She darted across the foyer and up the back staircase to Miss Susan's bedroom, where everything was dressed in some shade of yellow and smelled like honeysuckle. Swallowing was a chore with such a dry mouth, and the drum in her chest thumped extra hard. How would it look? Tiptoeing around where she had no business being. Crouching on the floor, she raised the bed skirt. Dust. She shimmied open the top dresser drawer — nothing but fancy brooches and pearls. In the far corner, the marble-topped stand beside the chair caught her eye. Eureka! (Or, as Momma would've said, "Had it been a snake, it would've bit you.") She slipped the newspaper under her shirt, half of it cool against her chest, the other half snug between her britches and her underpants.
She threw a kiss to Momma and flew through the kitchen door quicker than grass through a goose. Just the thought of reading made her run fast as her legs could carry her. Beyond the gazebo, past the outbuildings at the edge of the yard, she trotted past the plantation bell to the narrow dirt road bounded on both sides by downy fields. Some of the flowers were still learning to be themselves; three-leaved stems like poison ivy held blossoms soon to burst open pink, pink like the flesh of a watermelon. They would follow the sun just like morning glories till the field looked like a snowstorm hit it, all white and full of fluff. She waved to the white children from the Baptist orphanage and to the Negro children she wouldn't see at school until early November when cotton-picking season was done. She skirted the corncribs, the millhouse, minding her step along the steep slope of watermelons ripening on the vine.
At the bottom of the hill in the valley subject to floods and the felling of trees, Ivoe's home was jammed together with four dozen cabins on the worst land in Central East Texas. Nobody in Little Tunis lived like the Starks, who had too much of everything. Their homes, fronted by a yard of rocks, or a cluttered chicken pen, sometimes both, held only the essentials: a table, chairs, a resting place. You could tell by a cabin's kitchen who lived there. Down the road Ivoe knew she would find a banjo and tools for dyeing since the new couple made pretty music and indigo fabric; across the way where Mister James and his wife lived — a saw and a heaping laundry basket. The story of Ivoe's family was found in the beads Momma held while praying, Papa's sledge and file and the black dust his shoes carried in at the end of the day.
Ivoe ran through the yard, stopped to pluck a fig, bounded up the porch steps, and threw open the door. Quiet enough to hear a mouse pee on cotton. She had beat Timbo home. She yearned to spread the paper over the floor and draw her finger along every line of print under the amber sun, molten and gorgeous, pouring through the door like sorghum molasses, but instead slammed the door and dashed to her room. Whenever she rushed Momma liked to say, "Hurry now makes worry later." Sometimes, though, it meant you could hide your treasure without anyone finding out. Her chest heaved the way it did when Papa pushed her high on the tree swing in the churchyard. Some parts of the paper remained the same — advertisements from banks, insurance companies, a travel ad — TAKE A SEA TRIP HOME! Occasionally, a funny drawing made her laugh, but she was more taken with the articles — like stories only better because they were true. Of the three headlines she'd read to Miss Susan, one excited the most: "Spain's Possessions in America Few — Little Cuba the Last to Go!" At school, Miss Stokes had miles of smiles when Ivoe rattled off how Spain had lost Florida, California, and, in 1845, Texas, when Congress bought it for $7 million — higher than anybody could count. Ivoe felt it was only right to report exactly when Spain lost Little Cuba.
The sky looked like a field of bluebonnets when she helped Momma with supper that evening, marking time until the heavy staleness from the corncribs rode the wind down the hill to huddle around their cabin till dawn.
After her brother fell asleep, Ivoe drew the curtain down the middle of their room and felt around inside her mattress stuffed with straw and corn leaves and old newspapers. She lit the lantern to a low flame. Holding the paper at arm's length like the well-dressed men did on the oak benches along Main Street, she gave the paper one quick snap open, drawing it close to her face to breathe in ink, rag linen, a promised adventure. She commenced reading — faster than Miss Stokes said they should — because oil was expensive, burned at night only to prevent injury like the time she got caught in the bramble, fell over a pile of logs, and hurt her arm on the way to the outhouse. Reading about grown-ups playacting in a Houston theater was worth the accident.
Someone was shaking her.
For as long as Ivoe could remember, Papa chided that she could sleep through a carnival, while Momma said in a tone meant to shame, "Nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream." Ivoe sank deeper into her hiding place as the knot in her throat tied and tightened. The theft was bound to catch up to her. You could get away with one ugly deed but two was like herding hens through a waterfall. Burning up oil to read stolen newspapers would lead to the worst whipping 'cause Momma would never understand why reading was worth lying and stealing for. Under the quilt she rubbed her hands against the mattress cover to get rid of any traces of smudged ink.
"Turn this bed loose and put some clothes on. Be quick about it now."
"I ain't never liked to chew my cabbage twice. What did I say?"
It surprised Ivoe to find her father asleep on a pallet in the kitchen. She tiptoed around him, half filled the kettle, and lit the stove. She picked the lint from her braids and bathed. Returning the kettle to its proper place inside the hearth, she saw the misbaha on the mantel. There was trouble; Momma's prayer beads were never left out, and in the eastern corner her mat remained flat against the floor, as if the morning prayer had been interrupted. Ivoe took a pear from the table and recalled a scene from the night before: Timbo drenched in sweat, pushing aside his plate after a few bites. Now in the next room she heard Momma's voice, soft and tender, different from the one that had yanked her from a dream.
"You won't be going to the mill today," Lemon said, blotting her son's warm face with the back of her hand. Didn't make no sense. Summer peas, chicken, cornbread — they didn't have no business putting the boy in such a bad way. She scratched beneath her headscarf, between the braids, her eyes falling on a few pennies scattered on the little table next to the bed. She thought of Monday's shopping and frowned. Wasn't the first time she had saved two cents buying unsterilized milk. (The only folks she knew to pay five cents for the sterilized were the Starks.) She shook her head. What was it about that nickel that made her think she had to break it? Ennis wasn't keen on milk and Ivoe didn't drink it, but Timbo turned up two or three bowls at every meal. "You know you got to boil milk good before you drink it," she muttered softly.
"I drank milk straight from the cow plenty times," Timbo said, wincing.
"Shhh. Open your mouth." She tilted Timbo's chin to count the brown speckles on his tongue. In a short time the boy would be racked with fever. "Ivoe, look in the spice drawer and bring me the ginger." Lemon tried not to think the worst. When cows fed on hay with devilish white snakeroot mixed in they passed bad milk and anybody who drank it was liable to — She shook her head at the nub of ginger floating in the center of Ivoe's small brown hand and thought, Just once I'd like to go for a thing and find there's plenty of it. "Here, Timbo. Suck on this. Be sure to get lots of water in you. Papa be up soon. Come on, Ivoe. Let's go."
Timbo was in a bad way for Momma to move so quickly and so quietly, Ivoe thought. Usually by midmorning her mother had already laid out the day's chores twice and talked about what was going on in her garden, saying things like the okra and lettuce were getting along fine; the tomatoes weren't acting right or the beets were meddling with her runner beans. Today, they hurried in silence down the road alongside Riley's cornfields. As they rushed along the fringes of the orchard, the trees taunted Ivoe with their fragrant bounty. She wanted to stop and climb for a nectarine but knew better than to ask. A mile past their cabin, past the schoolhouse and Old Elam Baptist Church, they arrived at the Arms of God, the Brazos de Dios River, where the one-room adobe house of their only relative stood tucked away in a thicket.
Ivoe was excited to join her great-aunt May-Belle in the cellar lined with shelves taller than her father, which held jars of remedies that had cured her horrible itching last spring and stopped Momma's arm from swelling after a snake bite. There had to be something to heal her brother. She wondered who among the children at school would like the mysterious cellar. It seemed May-Belle had been pointing and talking about its holdings all of Ivoe's life, and there were still objects Ivoe had no stories for. At five or six, she thought the juanchiro was a table until May-Belle told her the Tiwa Indians called the tall drum "one that speaks with thunder" and let her bang it all afternoon. Eagle feathers from the warbonnet of a man her great-aunt once loved now lay atop the drum. The copper mask of a long-nosed god and feathered serpent was payment from a Caddo woman, after May-Belle delivered her daughter, to ensure a long life and peaceful afterlife. In the pile of colorful scraps on the table Ivoe recognized material from her favorite skirt and a blue smock May-Belle had worn. The green skirt was missed but the quilt her great-aunt was about to make would be all the better for it.
Momma called out to May-Belle twice, eyeing the hutch for a clue. In the place of the missing medicine bag, she wrote a message: Come quick. Timbo got milk sickness.
On the return home Ivoe's best effort to make haste was no match for the heat galling her mother.
"You got molasses in your tail this morning?"
"Ain't you got a sick brother?"
"Then get a move on."
"Momma, it's so hot the cows not mooing and the chickens not clucking," Ivoe said, wanting to melt the worry that made her mother hard as tack candy.
"But somebody's running her mouth instead of her legs now, ain't she?"
They lumbered over the dry ridges of the river bottoms and past the granary. When Ivoe fell behind, she broke into a gallop to catch her mother's stride. Lemon glimpsed a thirsty trough and shook her head as if to say her garden wouldn't make it through September.
By the time they arrived at the Starks' house, where Lemon had cooked for twenty years, the news of Alfred Stark's passing had already come from three people. Now Lemon paused before more signs of death: a Confederate flag waved from the gabled roof; a plain chassis stood before the front door, black draperies at its glassless windows. You weren't liable to find flags or chassis in Little Tunis, where Negro families spoke of loss through trees whose limbs held colorful bottles placed upside down with the necks facing the trunk, to trap any evil spirits. What bottles would they use to protect Timothy? Lemon shivered as she swept the Salat al-Janazah, funeral prayer, from her mind.
Inside the three-story manse, Earl Stark directed two carpenters to set up his father's coffin in the parlor.
"You mind your manners and don't touch nothing," Lemon whispered to Ivoe as they passed him to climb the staircase.
Posed like the letter T, Susan Stark stood on a stool in her underclothes while a seamstress measured for her mourning wardrobe.
"Was anybody with him?" Lemon asked.
"No. Minnie found him early this morning — slumped over his coffee in the kitchen," Miss Susan said.
"Seem like he was feeling fine yesterday."
"Most of the time you couldn't tell what Alfred was feeling ... Moses on the mountain, Ivoe! I don't believe I've ever seen feet like those on a girl child. How old you getting to be?"
"I just turned nine."
"That must make your brother —"
"Fourteen. Timbo's fourteen — and he's rightly sick, Miss Susan." As soon as the words left her mouth, Ivoe regretted them. In telling private family business she had broken an important rule.
Lemon eyed Ivoe coolly. "Ain't her place to say it, but yes, my boy is sick. I came to tell you I can't work today. I got to get back to him."
"Fine, soon as you see to the kitchen. I imagine plenty folks'll come by. You'll have to do some shopping. You talk to Earl? You ask him what to prepare?"
Lemon shook her head. It had not occurred to her to talk to Earl. She had offered him no sympathy on the passing of his father and, now as she thought of it, she had not even greeted him properly. "Look to me like you and Earl handling things. I ain't never seen my boy like this."
"It's fine, Lemon. You and Minnie decide between you who's going to do the flowers. Alfred left explicit directions for his death: twenty-eight white lilies in all the vases and twenty-eight in the casket with him. He didn't want to be embalmed so put candles everywhere before unpleasant odors bar everyone from the funeral. I started to turn facedown all the photographs but had to stop. Go through the house and don't leave one unturned."
"Now, Miss Susan, I don't plan on staying —"
Susan waved at the seamstress to stop and stepped down from the stool. "Lemon, my husband has died. I'm sure God created more loving spouses, but surely you're not supposing —"
"Now, Miss Susan, we go back years and I been a good worker for every one of them. Even on my worst day, sick and all, I been more than decent. I ain't never asked —"
Ivoe watched her mother, who always preached about obedience, move her hand from her pocketbook along the side of her leg. It was a habit she knew well because she often did things that made her mother pat her thigh for patience. Until that moment, she had not doubted that Timbo would be fixed by one of May-Belle's remedies and a little rest.
"— and I ain't asking now, Miss Susan. You gonna have to get on without me. Ivoe, let's go."
Later that evening, Ivoe watched her mother at the stove. The long day and its trouble had her beat. After their return from the Starks Momma had prayed extra long before starting the wash. As she pulled the steaming bedclothes from the big cast-iron pot to hang on the line, Ivoe saw her crying. She told Momma Timbo would be all right as soon as Aunt MayBelle showed up and not to cry.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jam on the Vine"
Copyright © 2015 LaShonda Katrice Barnett.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1: Juba (September 1897),
2: Love, a Curious Thing (October 1897),
3: Company E (April 1898),
4: Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug (June 1905),
5: Guillotine (September 1905),
6: A Gratuitous Insult (September 1906),
7: To Walk in Silk Attire and Have Silver to Spare (June 1907),
8: Thou Art So Near and Yet So Far (April 1911),
9: In the Gloaming (June 1911),
10: Monkey-Woman Blues (August 1911),
11: Meditations (October 1916),
12: "Mammy's Chocolate Soldier" (February 1917),
13: Cherry Street Waltz (August 1917),
14: Oak and Ivy (July 1918),
15: Jam on the Vine (August 1918),
16: Brother, Where Are You? (September 1918),
17: Casey's Row (September 1919),
18: Neodesha (September 1921),
19: Holding Back the River with a Broom (October 1921),
20: Le Tumulte Noir (May 1925),
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a very honest look at life for a black woman trying to be a journalist in the US in the early 20th century. Even in her childhood Ivoe is fascinated with newspapers. She steals every one she can from her mother’s white employer. The written word is her escape from the poverty she lives in. She becomes determined to fulfill her obsession with journalism. Her excellent writing and grades gain her a scholarship. She excels in journalism at the school. But when she applies for jobs she finds herself “overqualified. Her potential employers cannot see beyond her skin color. The writing in most of the book sets the scene so perfectly. Some of the sayings are delightful. When a woman asks Lemon, Ivoe’s mother, if she knows Annie Faye, Lemon replies with “We’ve howdyed but we ain’t never shook.” And then there is “Every time I stand up, my mind sits down.” And when Roena, Lemon’s daughter-in-law, says she regrets marrying Timbo, Lemon tells “Can’t put the rain back in the sky.” I love that! The characters are down to earth and seem so real. Life is hard for them but they keep on battling the poverty and discrimination they encounter every day of their lives. They do whatever it takes to support their families. Lemon makes jam and prepares vegetables for the community; her husband, Ennis goes off with the plan to make money and have his join him later. The author describes the minor transgressions that get mostly the black men (but some women too) thrown into jail. The conditions of those jails are deplorable. It nauseated me to even read about them. When Ivoe continues to find herself unable to break into journalism, her lover and the community encourage her to start her own black newspaper. It was interesting to read how they went about doing it, and the resistance they encountered. The last chapter was a real disappointment to me. It seemed as though Ms. Barnett had a vast amount of research she had not gotten into the book. So in the last chapter it is all thrown in there. The chapter is rushed, disconnected, and preachy. It was a truly disappointing end to an otherwise wonderfully written novel
While I can't say enough about how well LaShonda Katrice Barrett weaves together words, I'm one who prefers story to verse. There were too many times where the reader is left treading water through the imagery while waiting for the story to move forward. Don’t get me wrong. There are memorable phrases and clever descriptions throughout the book, but I’d much rather remember the story and characters once I put the book down. Though Ivoe Williams is the main character, the story is told using an omniscient point of view, where the reader is privy to the inner thoughts of every other character regardless of their closeness to Ivoe. But Barrett's expertly written prose still allows readers to experience the pain and frustration of being black at the turn of the 20th century. The drawback is that I found the stories of the secondary characters much more interesting and moving at a much faster clip than Ivoe's. There are very few moments when Ivoe acts instead of reacts to what is happening around her. The lesbian element of the story seemed extraneous to me, given that we are dealing with an era in which racial discrimination ran rampant. Ivoe's love affairs could have been heterosexual without changing the outcome of the book, so it left me wondering the actual purpose it served in the characters' development. Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction and lots of historical detail. If you’re looking to escape into a story driven by protagonist-created conflict, this might not be the book for you.
One of the reasons JAM ON THE VINE succeeds is because it's an honest and heartfelt story about family, love, and ambition. The characters are real, their hardships test them but do not break them, and the historical references are accurate. The writing is lush and thoughtful, and often a sentence is one you must read again for the pure enjoyment of it . . . just like one would like to taste the delicious tomato jam that the main character's (Ivoe) mother produces for the neighborhood women. Set during the early 20th century in Texas and Kansas, the story of Ivoe is one that will feel both similar and different to readers. The family at the center of the story is African-American, familiar in many ways from stories written by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. But this family is also different from what has already been part of many novels. This family is also Muslim. Barnett offers a glimpse into a world surprising and alien, but also one that readers can understand. The family's center is Ivoe, a lover of the written word, commits what could be a deadly sin for a Black girl in the Jim Crow South: she steals. But what she steals is far more important than the theft itself. She steals a newspaper. And like so many girls before and after her, she reads it in secret, luxuriating in its ability to take her far away from her own reality. It is that need to both escape reality as well as to mirror it that pushes Ivoe into the newspaper business. She takes her family with her to her new career and integrates them in the new home she builds -- with a lot of blood, sweat and tears. As she grows into her new life, she also recognizes that her love for her female friends is more than just an appreciation of that relationship. It's a love she cannot deny and she embraces it completely. Barnett's tale of racism and the birth of African-American newspapers is made more strong by the integration of this marvelous family -- and the recipes and musical interludes that sprinkle the pages of this novel. It's a wonderful book that I hated to see end.