At Popcorn Reads, one of our criteria for reviewing novels is that they fall within a certain publication date window; however, we’re making a huge exception today to bring you a novel by multi-award-winning author and activist Barbara Neely. Blanche Among the Talented Tenth is an amateur detective mystery and Book #2 of Ms. Neely’s Blanche White mystery series; however, it reads quite well as a stand-alone novel. It also addresses a common skeleton-in-the-closet phenomenon among all marginalized groups, an inescapable internal prejudice caused by society’s internalized messages about what’s considered worthy, and the cost of that prejudice to self and community. If you’re African American, you may have already discovered Barbara Neely. If not, you’re in for a treat if you’re a mystery lover.
“’…Everybody in the country got color on the brain – white folks trying to brown themselves up and looking down on everything that ain’t white at the same time; black folks puttin’ each other down for being too black; brown folks trying to make sure nobody mistakes them for black; yellow folks trying to convince themselves they’re white…It would be nice just for a week to have our color be like toenails or tonsils, or something else nobody really gives a damn about…”
Blanche White grew up in a small North Carolina town. With her dark skin, she was often taunted and called “Tar Baby” by the kids who should have been her friends, and it hurt more than anything. It would have been horrible enough for some white kid to call her that but it was beyond hurtful to have other African American kids call her that. Yes, she learned about folks being color struck at a very young age and she’s never understood it.
When her best friend passed away, Blanche became the mother to her two small children, Taifa and Malik. Determined to give them a better life, she moved to Boston and found work as a housekeeper there. She fought to get the kids into an excellent private school, Wilford Academy, so they could have advantages she never had growing up. She wants them to make something of themselves in this world and hopes she’s made the right choices for them, but she’s beginning to wonder. Maybe it’s that they’re fast becoming teenagers or maybe it’s constantly being around children of privilege, but they’re beginning to act a bit like snobs and that will not stand.
When the kids get an invitation to spend the summer at Amber Cove, an exclusive African American resort in Maine, Blanche has mixed feelings. Still, they’ll be staying with their best friends whose parents, the Crowleys, have invited not just them but have also asked Blanche to come up for part of the summer. Blanche will get to observe how both sets of children behave while the Crowleys go on an extended sailing trip, and she’s hoping that will help her make a decision about whether the kids should stay in their private school. Besides, she’s going to get a free trip to an exclusive resort she would never normally visit. Who wouldn’t jump all over that?
“’Hummm,’ Ardell said. ‘I think you got more to worry about than how many pairs of drawers to pack.’
Blanche sat on the bed next to her suitcase. ‘Why?’
‘Hummm. Well, this article on the place got a picture with some folks sittin’ on a terrace by the ocean. I swear, I can smell the money just looking at this picture. And all the people in it could be models for the after pictures in a skin-lightening ad, even the men. Anytime you get this many light-skinned black people together at least half of them are going to be folks who act light-skinned…
Blanche knew what Ardell meant. It wasn’t natural for a picture of black people in a public place to all be the same complexion, unless somebody wanted it that way…She assumed there must be some black-black rich women in this country, but she’d never seen one. She wasn’t expecting to find her eggplant-black self mirrored at Amber Cove. But color wasn’t the only way she’d be different.”
What she hadn’t bargained for was that she would find a resort full of the most color struck folks on the planet. Why didn’t she realize it would be this way? She’s never seen so many hair-straightened, lighter than light folks in her life. Are they all trying to be white? Why? Once again, she is put in the position of her own people looking down on her as if she just climbed out of a tar pit somewhere and should be put back there immediately before she soils their lily light-skinned presence. And she is having none of that. Luckily one of the resort’s cottage owners, a well known female author with a backbone made of iron, befriends Blanche and that at least makes it marginally bearable to be there.
But there’s something weird going on within this incestuous little insider group of cottage owners. One of their members, Faith, was accidentally electrocuted in her own bathtub just before Blanche arrived. That would be odd enough but it seems that Faith was a nasty vindictive piece of work, who got a lot of joy out of making other insiders miserable. There are even rumors that she might have been blackmailing some of the residents.
“A woman’s voice from the other side of the boulder brought her fully awake.
‘She was a meddlesome, vicious bitch and I hope she’s rotting in hell as we speak.’
‘Carol, don’t talk like that, please!’ a man responded.
‘Oh, have I shocked your sensibilities?’ Carol said. ‘That’s pretty funny under the circumstances.’”
As Blanche hears more and more about Faith’s personality and what happened, she begins to have some serious doubts about whether someone might have helped Faith have that accident. Being a naturally curious person, Blanche can’t resist looking into it further – and a note left by her new friend’s godson makes her even more determined. Could he have actually killed Faith? And that’s when things begin to get ugly, really ugly. Someone is onto Blanche’s snooping and wants her stopped. What does she know that she doesn’t know that she knows?
Blanche is, as we in NC say, down-home folks. She’s real, she’s loving, she’s strong, and she’s doing the best she can in life despite some pretty heavy odds against her. She’s a domestic worker, a housekeeper, a maid – whatever term you want to use; however, that’s just what she does to earn money and it doesn’t define who she is as a human being by any means. She’s determined to be the best mom a single woman suddenly thrown into motherhood can be. Does she make mistakes? Sure, what mother doesn’t? No matter who you are, this is a woman you’re going to wish was your best friend before you reach the end of this novel because she’s one grounded and amazing person.
I loved Blanche Among the Talented Tenth and devoured it in one sitting. It’s a fun amateur detective mystery filled with twists and turns. It’s also a story with a very timely and important message. People who’ve never been marginalized are pretty clueless about the ongoing and insidious internal as well as external battles that have to be conquered on a daily basis. This novel is going to be an eye-opener about that. It’s a real “take a walk in my shoes” story and I believe that kind of peek behind the curtain is important for increased understanding – something we really need right now.
But the main reason to read Blanche Among the Talented Tenth is that it’s a really fun cozy-style mystery featuring a protagonist who could give anyone lessons in how to live an authentic life. I’m now a Blanche White fan – she is my kind of uppity woman! Booyah!
Want to know more about this author and why she wrote the Blanche White series? This video is a great way to do that.
Can’t wait to read it?
Blanche Among the Talented Tenth was published as an e-book on February 2, 2015; however, it was originally published in 1994. This is a bargain e-book at only $4.99 and it’s free for Kindle Unlimited members, so click on the button/link below (or in the right column for iBooks) and you can download it now to read tonight!
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