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Top 5 Fiction Books for Black History Month

February 7, 2011

 Dana Barrett, my Buddy over at Midtown Review wrote a great blog last week about Black History Month (it’s the whole month of February, in case you’re wondering…) In her post she featured 5 Non-fiction books—which tell the true stories of what she calls the “unsung heroes” in black history. Her list is great—and it got me to thinking (it sometimes happens…) about how much history we learn from Fiction books as well—which is why this is such a hot category for book clubs. Book Clubs wanting to celebrate Black History Month—or just wanting a good, discussable book, might want to take a look at some of these titles. So as a companion to Dana’s Top 5 Non-Fiction list, here’s my Top 5 Fiction Books:

1)  Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill

Originally published in Canada as The Book of Negroes, it was published in the US as Someone Knows My Name. I discovered this gem last fall just before leaving on vacation—and I was glad we were going on a 16-hour flight to Australia, because I don’t know that I could’ve put this one down! It’s the story of Aminata Diallo,  born free in a small village in 18th century Africa, who was torn from her family by slave traders. We follow her very human story as she marches to the sea for months, endures life on a slave ship for even longer, and ultimately is sold on the auction block in North America. We travel with her back and forth over several continents—and learn of British-sanctioned Free Black settlements in Canada as well as Africa (both news to me…) Beautiful language, round characters and a compelling story—what more could a book club ask for?

Awards: Longlisted for the Giller Prize, and won the 2007 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2008 Evergreen Award (presented by the Ontario Library Association) the 2009 edition of Canada Reads, and the BookBrowse favorite book awards, 2008.

2) Song Yet Sung, by James McBride

From the New York Times-bestselling author of The Color of Water comes a gripping story of a clairvoyant run-away slave, Liz Spocott—who trudges the swamps of the underground railroad in her struggle for freedom. Alongside Liz, we gradually learn of “The Code”—the signs, milestones, and customs that will get her safely to The North. Set in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay itself plays a main character, but you will not be disappointed by the other characters in this historical adventure. My neighborhood book club had one of our best discussions ever when we selected this book.

Awards: NAACP Image Award Finalist, Dayton Literary Peace Prize Finalist, and the Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 Book Club Books of 2009.

3)  The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi Durrow

I received this book as an Advanced Reading Copy, and although there were dozens of books ahead of it in my TBR pile, the premise of this book was so compelling, I just had to pick it up and read it. Right then. And thus, it became “the book that fell to the top of my pile….” Am I ever glad it did!  This book was such a treat—not because it was a light, fluffy and happy book—indeed it is quite disturbing in parts. But because Heidi Durrow takes you inside this young girl’s head and makes you see another side, another life, another world.

This fresh coming of age story is alternately narrated by several unique voices—Rachel’s by far the strongest—and in this way, dark family secrets are slowly revealed to the reader. Rachel’s honest words resonate with quiet wisdom as she struggles with such themes as: racial identity, love and loss, affection and sexuality, abandonment and belonging, and growth and survival. Durrow also addresses gritty themes such as alcoholism and recovery, and abuse and caretaking. Coming of age, coming to terms with loss—without completely coming undone…Rachel’s story will yank at your heartstrings—and book clubs will certainly have plenty to discuss!

Awards: Bellwether Prize (2008), and the Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 Book Club Books of 2009

4) What is the What, by Dave Eggers

With “Lost Boy” Valentino Achak Deng as our narrator, we learn of the horrors of war and genocide in the civil war in Sudan. We follow in his footsteps, from his village—where his father is a respected merchant—to a biblical trek across Africa, relive his future-less life in various refugee camps, and his eventual resettlement in the United States—where his story is told to us in flashbacks. Poignant, yet with injections of humor, this book will attempt to have you understand the unimaginable.

Awards: Best Book of the Year-San Francisco Chronicle, National Book Critics’ Circle Award Nominee for Fiction, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Independent Publishers Award (IPPY) for Literary Fiction (2007), Medicis Prize (France) (2009)

5) The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

You might be surprised by my inclusion of this title. It is written by a white Canadian-American, and the primary protagonist, Lavinia, is also white. However, another major character, Belle, steals the show—and the book is not only her story—but the story of her family.

When Lavinia, a 9-year old Irish immigrant, is orphaned on a ship to America, she is thrust into the world of the Black servants in the kitchen house of a tobacco plantation.  Belle, the plantation owner’s illegitimate daughter, runs the kitchen house and takes Lavinia under her wing. The story is told in the alternate voices of these two young women. But Lavinia finds herself in no man’s land—a servant, yet she’s white—and eventually her uncertain loyalties put her adopted family at risk. It has been described as “Gone with the Wind from Mammy’s point of view.” And I will agree that it puts a very different perspective on “life at Tara”…It also provides some great discussion opportunities for book clubs—with themes such as Family, Isolation, Depression, Secrets, and Divided Loyalties.

Awards: GoodReads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2010)

So whether or not your book club is actively celebrating Black History Month, these are some titles that will help y’all celebrate Humanity!



P.S. And don’t forget to check out Dana Barrett’s Non-fiction list over at Midtown Review

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 8:44 am

    What a great list, Marsha! Not only are these compelling-sounding books, but the way you describe them transmits your enthusiasm and enjoyment all the way through. I have a friend who is working on a Civil War novel, with the viewpoint character being one of the slaves. I have only read the first part, but it is shaping up to be a very interesting book. I am going to recommend this list to her.

    Wizards and Ogres and Elves…oh my!
    News, Views, and Gurus

    • February 7, 2011 9:06 am

      Sandra: Thanks. Let me know when your friend finishes her book–it sounds like it might be a good book club read!

  2. February 7, 2011 8:54 am

    Nothing could please me more than to be on this list. It means that I did my job, which was to get out of the way and allow the characters to tell their story.

    Thank you, Marsha, for including them.

    • February 7, 2011 9:05 am

      Kathleen: If I knew you were going to read my post, I might have described you in more edified terms than ” a white Canadian-American”–I feel as though I called you a “honky” or a “cracker” :-)…But I hope you got the point I was making…I did love your book or it wouldn’t’ve shown up on this list. Cheers! BCC

      • February 7, 2011 10:03 am

        Marsha, you correctly called me what I am, although strictly speaking, I am a white Canadian living in the United States. 🙂

        If you would, please contact me at the email site that I gave when I posted here. I would love to talk to you.

  3. February 19, 2011 12:08 pm

    Remember me from Blogging 101 Class? Well, I finally have my blog up and running more or less. It’s a work in progress for sure. I continue to enjoy yours and have shared it with my book club colleagues. Your black history month book list is awesome. I started reading a good deal in this genre when we adopted our son, who is African American. What better way to learn about a culture, it’s history and mystery in a hurry than through books! There are a few on your list that are new to me, and I look forward to reading them. The book club I’m in just finished reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett; another excellent read with two of the main characters being black women who worked as house help in the early 1960s. I hope it’s okay that I’ve included your blog in my blogroll. Hope all is well, Janet


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