Short novels, especially books in verse, often belie their important and insightful contents. So is the case with award-winning poet / author Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace, which peels back the layers of a family, its history and its identity.
The story is told in short verse through the eyes of Connor Bianchini, grandson to Nona Lucia. When Nona Lucia dies, she leaves her son a letter that will potentially change his strong, proud Italian family’s (as well as outsiders’) view of what they believed to be true. The letter reveals that the man who raised Connor's father was not his birth father. Connor investigates the clues left behind, in the letter and in the birth father’s class ring, that reveal that the unknown birth father was not only black but likely a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
The discovery is a shock. As Connor’s father posits, “Odd, that black blood should be invisible?” Connor’s research leads him to many facts about the Airmen and, in turn, to realizations about personal identity and belonging. In one of the more telling phrases in the book, Connor notes about the Airmen: “The way they were treated makes me ashamed. But the way they treated others makes me proud.”
American Ace is a quick and absorbing read, great for introducing readers to both novels in verse and an important historic topic. As Connor notes, “I feel like there’s a blackness beyond skin, beyond race, beyond outward appearance. A blackness that has more to do with how you see than how you’re seen.”
This is a bright spot in historical fiction.