Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Tuesday, June 7, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The Two Lives of Sara

Park Row: The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

Park Row: The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

Park Row: The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

Park Row: The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

The Two Lives of Sara

by Catherine Adel West

Catherine Adel West's second novel, The Two Lives of Sara, pairs a wrenching portrait of a mother and son in the 1960s with a joyous celebration of Black culture in the South.

Pregnant and unmarried, preacher's daughter Sara King left Chicago to live in a Tennessee boarding house, The Scarlet Poplar. Here she helps out the no-nonsense proprietress, Mama Sugar, in the kitchen and raises her baby son, Lebanon, in the company of a passel of respectable Black boarders. Their dinner-table banter is a pleasure, lightening the tone where Sara, brooding on her situation, might tend toward gloom: "I'm the cynical type. The mean type. The unforgiving type."

Sara tells her own story in a voice as engaging as it is unadorned, sometimes addressing Lebanon directly. "I got on a bus, and I came to Memphis. I birthed you. Mama Sugar and I tell people your father died in a car accident. But that's not true, is it, child?" She recalls her life back in Chicago when, not many years ago, she was a carefree teenager alongside her best friends, Naomi and Violet. The flashbacks gradually shed light on the mystery of Lebanon's paternity. The shame she feels over her son foreshadows a traumatic revelation, one that seems to be connected to her resistance to churchgoing in Memphis. "I've said before church isn't... it isn't something I do. Not anymore," Sara tells Mama Sugar.

At The Scarlet Poplar, Sara also takes Mama Sugar's grandson, Will, under her wing. He's a bright boy who loves to read and discovers classics of African American and world literature under the tutelage of his teacher, Jonas Coulter. Sara frets that the special attention Jonas shows to Will could give the boy unrealistic expectations about what he can achieve. Meanwhile, Jonas serves as a wholesome father figure for Will, whose own father, Amos, a drinker and gambler, frequently gets beaten up--and threatened with worse--by those to whom he owes money.

As romance sparks between Jonas and Sara, he introduces her to the vibrant Memphis downtown. They eat pulled pork sandwiches and listen to James Brown on the jukebox. The Black music scene adds to the novel's backdrop, as does Southern food. Nina Simone is as likely to come up during discussions at the boarding house as is the best way of serving grits. Despite her antipathy to religion, Sara helps with the cooking for the church's Revival picnic, and her caramel cake becomes famous enough for her to consider opening her own bakery.

West has clearly done her research on segregation and the Civil Rights movement. History is a strong undercurrent in the novel. Readers hear rumors about the Freedom Riders and mentions of famous speeches given by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.--whom Sara's last name inevitably brings to mind. Characters also lament the white appropriation of Black art when Elvis comes on the radio: "Ain't got much against him but all he doin' is singing our music. But he get paid for it. We don't," complains Buster, one of the boarders. Jonas agrees with him: "We create. White people take it and then say it's theirs."

Throughout, there is a solid sense of the time period. The Scarlet Poplar feels like a bastion against the Jim Crow South. There are frequent references to Black colleges, history, leaders and literature. Through the books that Will reads with Jonas, West gives a survey of African American literature that was important at the time and just as relevant today, such as James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Langston Hughes's poetry and Ann Petry's The Street. American literature in general is a touchpoint--no doubt The Scarlet Poplar is an allusion to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the classic tale of an unmarried mother.

The Two Lives of Sara explores one aspect of the backstory of West's 2020 debut novel, Saving Ruby King, but both books can stand alone--this is less a prequel than a companion novel (or "sibling book," as West's editor calls it). Ruby is Sara's granddaughter, and at places in her story there are glimpses into Sara's past, so those who have read Saving Ruby King will appreciate learning more about her.

The hardships she has undergone have made Sara blunt and sometimes even spiteful. She has closed off her heart to pain--but also to love. This is not surprising, given everything she has been through, including the momentous events of her time in Memphis. The book opens with the promise of a second chance for her and Lebanon, but will it be snatched away by fate? Her challenge is to reconcile her past in Chicago with the new life she has built. "Maybe there's a way to unite my two lives, who I was with who I am now," she muses. Readers will be carried along with her heart-tugging story while enjoying time spent in the Black South in the 1960s. --Rebecca Foster

Park Row, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780778333227, September 6, 2022

Park Row: The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

Catherine Adel West: The Search for Something Meaningful

Catherine Adel West's The Two Lives of Sara (Park Row, September 6, 2022) is a "sibling book" to her 2020 debut novel, Saving Ruby King. Both explore the challenges faced by African American women, with The Two Lives of Sara focusing on an unwed mother from Chicago who arrives in Memphis in the early 1960s, hoping to escape her past and forge a new life. West, a Chicago native with an M.A. in journalism, also has a short story in the YA anthology Every Body Shines.

How would you characterize the relationship between Saving Ruby King and The Two Lives of Sara?

Both books have the character Sara in common, but they are distinctly different stories with different characters, time periods and cities. They also delve into different themes. Saving Ruby King deals with the reoccurrence of and secrecy surrounding generational trauma. The Two Lives of Sara explores learning to live and thrive beyond trauma, and the limits of resilience. The books can be read in any order and can slightly inform one another, but you can just read each one on their own and feel a sense of resolution.

What appealed to you about Memphis in the 1960s as a setting?

Memphis is known for music, food and entertainment. It's also an American Civil Rights mecca. There are so many additional appealing aspects, but that's not the reason I chose this location for The Two Lives of Sara.

I chose it because I had to. There was a part near the end of Saving Ruby King where Sara mentioned going to Memphis and what she experienced there. It was a couple of throwaway sentences. They sounded pretty and I was just writing a book--a book I didn't think would be published at the time.

When Saving Ruby King was acquired by Park Row/HarperCollins, they were interested in a second book. Sara's story was kinda perfect. But I'd backed myself into a corner since I didn't know Memphis the way I know my hometown of Chicago, and I couldn't arbitrarily change the city. So, I had to do a lot of research, read books, newspaper articles and academic papers. I even had the opportunity to interview native Memphians about their lives and experiences in the city.

Everything I learned about Memphis was through a novice lens, and this informed how Sara learned about Memphis, too, which added to the authenticity of her experience when she first arrives.

There are many mouthwatering descriptions of Southern food. When and how did you know that cooking was going to be a major element of the book?

I knew almost immediately food was going to be central to this book. Using food is the perfect opportunity to show care, love and support. It's a way to ask forgiveness or express appreciation. Food is a way to bring a community together. It's also an interesting way to show someone's personality. You can tell a lot about someone by how they cook or bake, how much care they put into a honey-baked ham or a sweet potato pie.

Food can expose a reader to different cultures--from the language and terminology used, to the spices, to the methods by which different dishes are prepared. It's another way to enliven the senses and draw readers into a story.

Ultimately, I wanted to show how food and its preparation is also a way to calm and control your surroundings in a time and place where Black women especially had to fight (and still fight) for agency and recognition both inside and outside of our communities, the nation and the world.

Music is also key in the novel. What role does it play in your life, and how does it add color to the narrative?

Music is universal in its ability to elicit emotion. We all have songs that instantly evoke memories or feelings--good, bad and ugly. The way I use music in my book further adds to the personalities of each character.

Doing research on which songs to add was so much fun, but just a bit tedious because I could only use certain songs as the book takes place in Memphis during the early 1960s. Unfortunately, there were some songs I really wanted to include, but they didn't come out until September 1966 or August 1968, which didn't match the time of the story.

However, selecting the songs for this story was one of my favorite parts during the initial draft phase. You can't go wrong with good food or good music!

You mention a lot of works of literature, including African American classics. What books particularly inspired you here?

About 90% of the books I reference in The Two Lives of Sara are written by African American authors, except for Georges by Alexandre Dumas and one other book. I wanted to interweave as much Black literature as possible. It had (and has) such a seismic influence in my life and the writer I strive to be.

The basic premise of The Street by Ann Petry, as well as the themes and character arcs, mirrors a few parts of The Two Lives of Sara. Also, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was one of my mom's favorite books growing up, so it's a little nod to her influence on me and the literature I enjoy.

I wouldn't be half the writer I am if I didn't read books by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and so many others.

I understand you also grew up a preacher's daughter in Chicago. Sara's loss of faith is one of many wrenching aspects of the book. Do you think of the novel as autobiographical? How do stories of religion and doubt have continuing resonance for today's readers?

My father became a pastor later in my life and though I grew up in the church, I didn't struggle with my faith because I questioned what I was taught from an early age. I was encouraged to be analytical, do my own research and not take someone's word just because a Bible is in their hands. I was fortunate, as many people who grow up in the church are taught to do the opposite [or risk] some horrible and earned consequence or eternal damnation.

When you question things or behaviors that don't make sense, you're allowed to come to your own conclusions and for me, those conclusions brought me closer to my faith rather than led me further away from it. But I always believe with eyes wide open and never place my faith in people or institutions. Though many are well-meaning, people are inherently fallible and most institutions don't last. I still question. I still continue to learn. I still continue to pray.

As long as there's been religion, there's been doubt. It's a theme that's run through literature since the first words were put to paper. People will always question religion through books, through song, through art, through other means, no matter how you practice or who you pray to. The search for something meaningful beyond the lives we live and how we live them; the back and forth about organized worship, will always be an integral part of the human experience. --Rebecca Foster

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