Priscilla Kipp

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Civil War scholar Carole Emberton titled this insightful study of “freedom’s charter generation,” the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated in 1865, after a soothing quote from the Bible (Psalm 119:45). But she is clear: There was nothing easy about this walk away from slavery for the Black Americans of the Jim Crow South. Their stories, gathered in interviews by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression, are carefully retold in To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, a necessary, judicious correction to previously published accounts.

A project funded under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the FWP sent mostly white interviewers across the South to record the stories of formerly enslaved people who were still living. But before publication, the interviews underwent heavy editing to make them align with a more nostalgic vision of the South’s past. It would take Sterling Brown, a Black poet and FWP leader, to insist on authenticity and restore the interviewees’ words. Almost a century later, here they are.

Emberton’s book especially focuses on one woman, Priscilla Joyner, who told her life story to the FWP. Born in 1858, Joyner was never formally enslaved, yet her struggle to be free lasted for her entire lifetime. After the Civil War, former slaveholders did their best to subvert and sabotage the new, fragile laws of Reconstruction. Shocked when the people they had enslaved walked away without looking back, and fearful of a new balance of power, they thwarted Black voting rights and menaced teachers at newly opened schools—or simply burned the schools down.

Joyner experienced much of this hostility firsthand. The white woman who called herself Joyner’s mother did little to nurture or protect her. Joyner’s darker skin enraged her white siblings, who tormented her until, as a teenager, she was abruptly given away to a Black family. Within that community, Joyner found her people, went to school for the first time, wore ribbons in her hair and dresses that fit, and fell in love. Yet she and her family continued to struggle against inequities in pay, health care, education and professional opportunities.

Emberton’s attention to detail, whether she’s describing an inept FWP interviewer, an intimidated storyteller or the heavy-handed project editor, succeeds in debunking any nostalgia attached to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.

Carole Emberton’s insightful study of the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated is a necessary, judicious correction to Confederate nostalgia.
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When then-California Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice president of the United States, she spoke of a long history of inspiring women, including the impoverished Mississippi sharecropper-turned-human rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “We’re not often taught their stories, but as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders,” Harris said. Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America ensures that Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

The granddaughter of enslaved people and the youngest of 20 children growing up on a plantation in the Jim Crow South, Hamer’s formal education ended in the sixth grade. Her parents needed her to pick cotton in order to put food on the table. In 1962, at age 44, Hamer attended a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and learned for the first time that she had a constitutional right to vote.

After attempting to exercise that right got her thrown off the plantation, Hamer began organizing voter education workshops and registration drives. Her family became targets of violence, her husband and daughter were arrested and jailed, and their home was invaded. Eventually her work with SNCC activists almost cost Hamer her life: Jailed after a voter workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she took a beating that left her with kidney damage and a blood clot in one eye.

Undeterred, Hamer went on to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, arguing that the delegation couldn’t represent the state when Black Democrats had been excluded from the selection process. President Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference to prevent television coverage of her graphic testimony, in which she detailed her beating, but it aired anyway and sparked outrage. Eventually the credentials committee offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which included white and Black people, two at-large seats with no voting power. Hamer’s response: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” Four years later, she would become a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

With SNCC, Hamer helped organize the legendary Freedom Summer in 1964 and later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative to tackle rural poverty. She fought for inclusion in the women’s movement, and until her death in 1977, she remained strident about the global need to liberate all marginalized groups seeking political and economic justice. As readers take in Hamer’s life story throughout this rallying cry of a book, they will find that her message still resounds today: “You are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.”

Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.
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For all we know, or think we know, about the long, dark history of the slave trade, it seems there is always more to learn. In The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade, A.E. Rooks adds global and historical context to the travesties and tragedies that took place along the coast of West Africa in the 1800s. A versatile, accomplished scholar, and two-time “Jeopardy!” champion, Rooks introduces a cast of ambitious commanders, insensitive rulers and policymakers, heroic ship captains, beleaguered sailors and heartless enslavers.

Cuba, Jamaica, Africa, Brazil, Portugal, France, Spain and the United States were among the countries that played a role in the brutal enslavement of Africans. After England abolished slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, the British Royal Navy’s West African Squadron commissioned a ship called the Black Joke to pursue ships that continued to transport enslaved people illegally. Before that, the brig was itself a slaving ship, but in its reincarnation as “the scourge of traffickers,” it freed “at least three thousand people from bondage . . . a figure to compare with how many the ex-slaver had itself brought to that bondage.”

Rooks greatly enlarges the context of the Black Joke’s legendary four-year run, delving into the maritime, economic and political issues of the day. England and France spent years debating and occasionally trying to repudiate the barbarity of it all, but their policies were often carried out by far-off, corrupt enforcers. And with so much money on the line, justice became harder to secure. Countries like the United States required the free labor (and reproduction) of enslaved people to keep plantations prospering and to supply growing manufacturing industries. The vessels caught by the Black Joke were sold at auction, often to slave traders who sent them right back to West Africa. Pirates and pestilence added to the chaos. Many Africans whom the Black Joke intercepted were returned to Freetown in Sierra Leone only to be recaptured, sold and enslaved again. Meanwhile, governments watched, profited and looked away.

Rooks accumulates these daunting details with a wry but respectful touch. Her occasional wit, perhaps incongruous given the dire events she relates, may be her way of reminding us of our common humanity, still present even amid inhumane conditions.

An accomplished scholar and two-time "Jeopardy" champion reveals the true story of a British vessel that captured slave ships in the 1800s.
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Jordan Salama, a 2019 Princeton University graduate and journalist, comes by his travel instincts honestly. His great-great-great-grandfather led a thousand camels along the Silk Road to trade goods in Iraq, Syria and Iran; his great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina, rode on horseback through the Andes as an itinerant salesman; and his father became a physician in Buenos Aires before migrating to New York City. Their stories, passed down through generations of a family that spoke “a spellbinding mix of English, Spanish, and Arabic,” have inspired Salama’s own explorations, including the one he describes in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

The Magdalena River, which is over 900 miles long and Colombia’s principal waterway, links the country’s diverse interior to the Caribbean Sea. It has long been a vital transportation mainstay, used and abused by the Colombian government, global industry, paramilitaries, guerillas, migrants, fishers and environmentalists alike. In 2016 the government signed a wobbly peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other guerilla armies, but the river’s future viability remains as unclear as its sediment-stacked waters. Salama is intent on learning everything he can, while he still can, about this endangered, legendary river that threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

The Magdalena is central to many tales, both in fiction, as in the novels of Colombia’s revered author Gabriel García Márquez, and in the true stories Salama hears as he follows the river’s course from beginning to end. The people he meets and travels with share their experiences—from a jeweler selling silver filigree flowers, to a teacher delivering books to rural children via his two donkeys (Alfa and Beto), to the ill-fated anthropologist and activist Luis Manuel Salamanca, to Alvarito, the village kite master. They are, Salama writes, “ordinary people working tirelessly to preserve the natural/cultural treasures of a country much maligned by war,” and their fates are interwoven with the Magdalena.

Then there are the runaway hippopotamuses. Imported from Africa for the private zoo of notorious drug king Pablo Escobar, the hippos fled after Escobar’s murder in 1993 and now make the Magdalena and its tributaries their home. They have multiplied and spread over the past three decades, and they will pursue and attack any intruders. As Salama ventures deeper into Colombia, he can’t wait to find them.

By the time Salama ends his riveting journey, scrambling across the treacherous rocks where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea, he has already enticed readers to follow him on his next one.

Jordan Salama is intent on learning everything he can about the legendary Magdalena River, which threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.
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In a powerful confluence of history, culture and color, poet and author Jackie Kay tells the story of the legendary American singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, known in her day as the Empress of the Blues. As an orphaned child, born in 1894 (or 1895; statistics about Black Americans were not considered important enough to make accurate), Smith sang for her supper on the street corners of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then rose to fame as a teenager while singing and dancing in traveling Black minstrel shows. Blues singers like Ma Rainey, immortalized in her own right as the Mother of the Blues, helped Smith find her way in the Jim Crow South, and the popularity of Smith’s songs brought her stardom.

If Smith’s voice embodied the blues, her personal life illustrated them. Songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” mirrored her own experiences. She drank, fought and had tempestuous affairs with men and women. She was a devoted adoptive mother, until she lost her child. Amid the abundant parties of the Harlem Renaissance, she refused to be patronized and once slugged the wife of one party’s white host. (She had tried to thank Smith with a kiss.) Smith’s husband, Jack Gee, stole her money, beat her and left her for a rival.

After 1929, Smith’s fame crashed like the country itself. Then, on her way to a comeback in 1937, she died a tragic death at the age of 43, and Gee stole the money raised for her headstone. Three decades later, Janis Joplin helped fund the stone and its inscription: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” Kay’s white adoptive father first introduced her to Smith’s vinyl recordings when, as a young girl in the Scotland village of Bishopbriggs, Kay was the only Black person. Smith’s raw voice drew Kay into the history of the blues and the American Black women who made it their own. In Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend, Kay entwines her own poetic voice with these women’s stories and music, and the result is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow and woe, love and lust, and—above all—resilience.

Jackie Kay’s biography of blues legend Bessie Smith is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow, love and resilience.
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Black History Month is an annual celebration of black achievements as well as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against adversity. In three new books, George Washington’s runaway slave achieves freedom, members of the black elite in post-Reconstruction Washington, D.C., wrestle with Jim Crow and a Mississippi murder re-invigorates the civil rights movement.

George Washington beat all odds to win the American colonies their independence, then surrendered his private life to serve as the nation’s first president. What he never gave up were his slaves. The remarkable story of the female slave who got away, Never Caught, is a testament to her tenacity on both sides of bondage.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s impressive research reveals the details: Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s personal slave, slipped away from the couple’s official residence in Philadelphia, the seat of the new government. She had served the family since birth, but when Martha planned to “give” Judge away to her volatile granddaughter, she decided to risk escape. Aided by the free black community in progressive Philadelphia, where slave owners were required to free slaves after a six-month residency (a law that Washington subverted by rotating his slaves to and from his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon), Judge fled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Using the power of his office, Washington pursued her. With winter on her heels, Judge had to find shelter and work, elude slave catchers and forget about the family she left behind. While there is scant historical record of her remaining days, the shadow Judge casts on the president is long and dark, as told in this obscure chapter of U.S. history.

In The Original Black Elite, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor meticulously traces the auspicious rise and steady decline of African-American influence and civil rights in Washington, D.C., and beyond, as seen through the Daniel Murray family. The ambitious and aristocratic Murray was assistant librarian at the Library of Congress and compiler of the first encyclopedia for “the colored race throughout the world,” but could do little to stop the degradations and injustices. 

After Emancipation and the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution further guaranteed freedom, protection and civil rights to all African Americans—but not for long. Reconstruction led to political fence-mending between the North and South, spawning Jim Crow laws and institutionalizing racism in the largely black District of Columbia, once considered “a black man’s paradise.” 

Racial exclusions went mostly unremedied by President William McKinley, and later were allowed to flourish under President Woodrow Wilson. Even at the doorstep of Congress, buying a house, dining in a restaurant or burying the dead were matters decided by color. By the time black veterans of World War I returned home, jobless and castigated as threats to whites, Washington was ready to erupt. The Red Summer of 1919 followed, and as race riots spread to other cities, it became clear that equality would be hard won.

In The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy B. Tyson delivers a riveting, richly detailed account of the crime that reignited the civil rights movement. Tyson begins with an exclusive interview with Carolyn Bryant, in which— decades later—the white woman at the center of the crime admits to lying about that summer day in Money, Mississippi. 

Emmett Till was a bright, church-going 14-year-old with a slight stutter. He liked doo-wop and baseball. Before his mother, Mamie, sent him by train from Chicago’s south side to Mississippi to spend the summer with his cousins and great-uncle Moses Wright, an ordained preacher, she warned him about the “Delta way of life,” a culture of strict segregation demanding black subservience, especially regarding white women. 

Raised by his mother and grandmother, Till had never been known to cause trouble. Yet, days before he was to return home, he visited the small general store operated by Roy Bryant, where he allegedly touched Carolyn’s hand as he paid for his candy and “smart talked” to her. An alleged wolf whistle sealed his fate. Till’s bloated, mutilated body soon bubbled up in the Tallahatchie River; these murders were so common in Mississippi, and so overlooked elsewhere, it might have gone unaddressed. But Mamie called the Chicago press and insisted on an open casket: “Let the world see what they did to my boy.” Thus began a new era in the civil rights movement.


This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Black History Month is an annual celebration of black achievements as well as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against adversity. In three new books, George Washington’s runaway slave achieves freedom, members of the black elite in post-Reconstruction Washington, D.C., wrestle with Jim Crow and a Mississippi murder re-invigorates the civil rights movement.
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In the 1946 Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman famously belted out, “There’s no business like show business.” Music theater legends Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber would no doubt agree.

Rodgers and Hammerstein transformed the world of sound and stage, lighting up Broadway with one legendary success after another—think Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The Sound of Music—and doing their lyrical, tuneful best to revolutionize musicals in the 1940s and 1950s. Villainy, tragedy and romance colored their productions, creating a new mix of sentiment and gravitas, studded with catchy, memorable tunes and innovative melodies.

Come backstage in Todd S. Purdum’s Something Wonderful as he introduces the musical stars and up-and-comers of the day—Mary Martin, Yul Brynner, Julie Andrews and Gene Kelly, to name a few. Become part of the Big Black Giant (show business’s apt moniker for the audience) and live the drama of opening nights, when anything could happen—and often did, from train wrecks to triumphant debuts. Discover the complexities of the duo’s very different personalities and their decades-long partnership, all tied into the entangling business of Broadway. It’s all here in Purdum’s book. From describing the real-life moment that inspired “Some Enchanted Evening” to detailing the drafts for “Edelweiss,” Purdum has produced Something Wonderful indeed.

The iconic composer Andrew Lloyd Webber celebrates his 70th birthday with the publication of his memoir, Unmasked. Filled with wit, self-deprecating humor and dollops of gossip, Lloyd Webber chronicles his decades of work in musical theater. The prolific composer (Evita, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard, among others) claims Richard Rodgers as his hero, and like him, Lloyd Webber has become rich, famous, controversial and revered. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1992, he has earned seven Tonys, three Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

Lloyd Weber goes behind the scenes during a time when the Beatles were changing 1960s London and the song “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris first fused rock with orchestral music. Lloyd Webber ran with the idea of applying this new sound to a musical, while friend and lyricist Tim Rice took his story material from the Bible. Together they created Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. While some critics were agog at such seeming irreverence, audiences loved the sound and lined up for the shows.

“Even if I haven’t got near to writing ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’” Lloyd Webber modestly concludes, “I hope I’ve given a few people some reasonably OK ones. I’d like to give them some more.” Wouldn’t that be something wonderful?


This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In the 1946 Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman famously belted out, “There’s no business like show business.” Music theater legends Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber would no doubt agree.

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Fans of true crime, hang onto your seats (and sanity) as you delve into the diabolical minds of these modern-day serial killers more intimately than ever before. No need to inject sensationalism here. These sharply written, detailed investigations keep to the facts, and that is where their worth and horror lie. Go beyond the fading headlines to deep inside prison walls, across small tables in windowless rooms and face-to-face with the men whose crimes made them monsters.

The prolific duo of John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Law & Disorder and Mindhunter, which was adapted for Netflix) return in The Killer Across the Table. Douglas, a retired FBI agent who spent his career interviewing and profiling criminals, proves his expertise in exploring the minds and murderous behaviors of four notorious killers. The aim of these interviews, Douglas states, “is not to be a friend. The aim is not to be a foe. The aim is to target the truth.” Why did Joseph McGowan, a mild-­mannered high school teacher, brutally rape a neighbor’s child delivering Girl Scout cookies? Would he do it again? Why did Donald Harvey, the hospital aid and “Angel of Death,” kill as many as 87 patients in his care? Through painstakingly conducted interviews, ugly but useful answers emerge.

“Meticulous” is one way to describe Israel Keyes’ pathologically inspired routines for kidnapping, torturing, murdering and disposing of a still-unknown number of victims. In American Predator, Maureen Callahan is just as focused and diligent in detailing the hunt that brought these killings to an end.

In February 2012, teenager Samantha Koenig disappeared from the coffee kiosk where she was working alone one night in Anchorage, Alaska. The local police investigation got off to a shaky start: Surveillance videos from nearby businesses went unexamined, while media leaks fueled public panic. The trail eventually led police all the way to Texas. Keyes, a business owner with no criminal record, was stopped for a questionable traffic violation. A bigger horror story soon unfolded.

The why, how, where and when of Keyes’ cross-country crimes are described so well by Callahan that the feeling of “you are here” can be unsettling, if not unnerving. But there’s one bright side. Keyes’ confessions helped law enforcement and behavioral scientists understand a serial killer’s mind in order to detect, track and prevent such predators.

Two bone-chilling works of nonfiction take readers into the minds of some of the world’s most meticulous serial killers.

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A diligent reader might begin this absorbing journey into an immigrant family’s fortunes, made and lost, by seeking the meaning of its title, Concepcion. They would discover that, like the generations revealed in Albert Samaha’s probing account, the answer isn’t simple. Concepcion is the surname of Samaha’s ancestors, the name of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships, a city in the Philippines and a word that aptly suggests a beginning.

Now nearing the same age as his mother, Lucy, when she first arrived in California, Samaha wants to understand what led her there. If Lucy was initially blinded by the promises of a country that held sway over her comfortable middle-class life in the Philippines, he wonders, how does she feel now? How have his other family members fared within the diaspora in the U.S., and how do they regard their ties to their homeland? Their answers are surprising and complex.

Samaha writes from the perspective of a successful, educated and skeptical American adult, declaring, “I found it easier to see what my elders could not: the height of the climb and the length of the fall.” Applying his skills as an investigative journalist to his family’s far-reaching saga, he filters their experiences as immigrants through the Philippines’ tumultuous history and the effects of their acquired American culture. It’s a deftly executed back-and-forth, and he shares his own enlightenments—and criticisms—as he goes. The role of race in the history of the National Football League and the influence of religion on political preferences are among his targets.

Samaha’s deep dive into Philippine history begins with Magellan’s colonization of the Philippines in the 1500s, flows through the centuries to Ferdinand Marcos’ long, controversial reign as the 10th president of the Philippines, and ends with Rodrigo Duterte’s current iron grip. Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II led to a U.S. takeover (the spoils of victory), and America has loomed large as a land of opportunity ever since. When U.S. immigration rules relaxed in 1965, Filipinos knew where to go.

Now, having benefited from his mother’s years of devotion and hard work, his absent father’s money and the support of their larger family in the Bay Area, Samaha is sensitive to their struggles amid what he sees as the failed promises, economic inequities and racial injustices of their adopted country. From the disadvantages of their lower paying jobs—such as his uncle’s work as an airport baggage handler after abandoning his career as a rock star in the Philippines—to their resilient, steadfast beliefs in democracy’s ideals despite its failings, Samaha plants their stories alongside his own and grows a remarkable family tree.

Journalist Albert Samaha's investigation into his family’s decision to emigrate from the Philippines turns up some surprising and complex answers.
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As the familiar story goes, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s iconic general, led the Colonies to an improbable victory over the crushing British monarchy and its oppressive taxation. But according to Nathaniel Philbrick in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s real challenges as a leader began after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south and anti-Federalists everywhere (even in his own Cabinet), Washington set out just months after his 1789 inauguration on an uncomfortable, arduous tour of the shaky new union he felt compelled to unite.

In the late summer of 2018, in a time hardly less politically fraught, Philbrick, his wife and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, embarked from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the former president’s footsteps. Inspired by Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck—who wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”—Philbrick expected “a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure” that instead “proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined.”

Read our starred review of the ‘Travels With George’ audiobook, narrated by the author.

Visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, or paraded through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strode into wearing a simple brown suit (the new president had a feel for political theater), Philbrick delivers the details. He explains how Washington became “the father of the American mule,” debunks myths about the first president’s wooden teeth and enriches facts with help from local archivists, librarians, curators, docents and even the descendants of those who were there. But Philbrick keeps one foot in, and a respectful perspective on, the present throughout, assessing hazards then—such as when Washington’s horses fell off a ferry—and now—such as when Philbrick’s own sailboat nearly capsized in a vicious storm on his way to Newport, Rhode Island.

When BookPage interviewed Philbrick in 2006 for Mayflower, his Pulitzer Prize history finalist, he said, “I think it’s really important that we see the past as a lived past rather than something that was fated to be.” With Travels With George, he succeeds again at this aim. Washington emerges as the complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader that his newborn country desperately needed. The quantity and quality of the details Philbrick gathers as he straddles past and present make this an extraordinary read.

As Nathaniel Philbrick retraces George Washington’s tour of the shaky new union, the first president emerges as a complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader.
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Rodrigo García is a film and television director, writer, cinematographer and son of the late Nobel winner Gabriel García Márquez, affectionately known as Gabo, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When García’s world-famous father began his long slide toward dementia, García began taking notes. “Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots,” he writes. “I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes.”

All who have loved García Márquez’s works will rejoice that his son overcame that angst, dutifully waiting until after his father’s death in 2014 and his mother’s death in 2020 to publish his intimate, endearing tribute, A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha. García’s notes, acutely observational, are simultaneously infused with love, respect and the pain of loss. He admits that his relationships with his parents were complicated. Their lives had public, private and even secret components, and García frets about crossing lines that might leave his parents helplessly exposed. Still, from his dying father’s bedside in Mexico City to his last moment with his mother (shared digitally, as COVID-19 prevented him from traveling), García is a guardian of their dignity. 

Yet this memoir’s details are indeed intimate. We're ushered into García Márquez's study as he works, until the renowned author slowly realizes he no longer can. García’s mother rises above her grief, insisting that she is a woman, not a widow, as she entertains the flow of mourning guests from around the globe—even the complete stranger who manages to con her out of quite a bit of cash. We follow García into the crematorium as he gazes upon his father for the last time, tempering that blow with the thought that García Márquez might have enjoyed flirting with the funeral worker who gave his body a little makeup, a final flourish on his way out.

Fittingly, García begins each chapter with an excerpt from one of his father’s works, and it’s this connection between life and art that holds this intense memoir together. As one epigraph from Love in the Time of Cholera puts it, “he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.”

When Gabriel García Márquez began his long slide toward dementia, his son began taking notes for this intimate, endearing tribute to his late parents.

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