Monday, February 22, 2016

Juba! A Novel- A Review and ARC Giveaway

Congratulations to Linda Andersen and Monica M., a new Twitter follower, who each won a copy of OF BETTER BLOOD on last week's blog.


Writing historical fiction is hard. You read shelves full of books, study documents, interview experts, ponder maps, photographs, and data. You work really hard to insert authentic details (what color dress would she have worn to the dance? What did he eat for lunch? What bus would she have taken to work?) and then plunge forward to create as authentic a character as possible.

But when you're writing a story about a young man who lived over a hundred and fifty years ago to whom you want to pay tribute, but yet there is little "real" data, your task becomes even more difficult. You have a few bones to build your story around-- perhaps a death certificate and a few photographs. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find a few newspaper articles you can dig up to authenticate your story.

Such was Walter Dean Myers challenge when he wrote Juba! (Harper Collins, 2015)

This book for middle grade or young adult readers, is based on the true story of a talented young black dancer considered to be the inventor of tap dancing. While performing in New York City, he was noticed by Charles Dickens who wrote about him in American Notes:

"Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs - all sorts of legs and no legs - what is this to him?" 
"And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!"
Engraving from American Notes by Charles Dickens (1842) showing 
Master Juba being observed by Dickens and an associate.

Walter Dean Myers, in his last book before his death, told the story of William Henry Lane (Juba's real name) using just a few resources: Dickens' writings, a smattering of newspaper articles and images, and Juba's death certificate. Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

Initially Juba seeks dance instruction from an Irish teacher named Margaret. (This particular passage reminded me of a comment my current dance partner--my husband's 85-year-old uncle--made. "When you see old people dancing, they're imagining themselves as teenagers.")
"If you weren't so thickheaded, you'd know they [the audience] were watching you because they want to enjoy themselves, not marvel at you. You ever go to an Irish dance and see the young people swinging themselves around and kicking up their heels and the old people watching them? The old people are thinking back on a time when they were young and they could do the same thing the young people are doing. But you have to give them something they can do, if only on the floor between their ears, if you get my drift." (p. 44)
The reader hears Juba's despondency and realism in the following line. He has just auditioned as a dancer and thinks he won't get the job. 
"My dancing didn't mean a thing. The only thing they see in a black man is a clown or a slave. "(p. 55)

Juba finally gets a few gigs as a dancer but when Mr. Charles Dickens comes to New York and watches him, he dances as he never has before. This quote begins with Mr. Dickens speaking.

"...There's a freedom about the way you move that makes me wish I could dance. Have you ever had a difficult time in your life?" 

"At times, everything seems hard," I said. "I'm not sure what tomorrow is going to be like. I'm just hoping it's something good." 

"I imagined--and I know I'm talking too much--that you must have had some difficult times along the way. I think that's the mystery of greatness and of people who achieve wonderful things," Mr. Dickens said. "That somewhere in their lives they have felt the cold winds of despair, but have kept their hearts warm themselves." (p. 104)

In order to make a small living Juba is forced to make compromises.

Jack [his "fair minded" white landlord] knew how black people were treated in New York. We were second-class people every day and third-class performers when we tried to exercise our talents outside of the black community. What he did was to needle me so I wouldn't give up all together, and in a way, I appreciated it. In a way, I didn't, though, because sometimes he made me feel that when I accepted a job with a minstrel band or put on blackface I was betraying my people. To me, putting on blackface was the strangest thing in the world. I was born black, and yet the promoters wanted me to dress up like some kind of strange image of a black person that really wasn't a true Negro. It was as if a lot of white people had a place in their heads for black people and you had to fit in that place in a certain manner or they didn't want you. They wanted black performers to talk bad, say stupid things, and be like pets. Jack said a lot of white people were afraid of real black people. (pp. 123-4)
Even after Juba was well received by Londoners who had read accounts of him by Charles Dickens, he still encounters this same prejudice from fellow performers.  
Huff [another performer] walked across the room and put his nose an inch from Gil's. "What I see with my own two eyes is that I'm not going to make no kind of steady living working for a nigger. And that's what I'm doing over here, working behind Boz's Juba or whatever it is he's calling himself. In America you make a living working with white men, and for white men. And I aim to go back to America, back to Mableton, Georgia and make a living. And if I want any coloreds around me, I'll buy a few!" (p. 157)

Possibly depicting Juba performing in England

 Walter Dean Myers did an excellent job of bringing this forgotten, yet important, performer to life. Juba's life was full of sorrow, yet it also held love and accomplishment. I hope whoever wins my gently read ARC, will pass it along to a young person who can be encouraged by an inspirational story of a man who, despite many obstacles, followed his dreams.

To enter this giveaway, please leave me a comment by noon on Thursday, February 25. If you are new to my blog, please leave your contact information also. For extra chances to win this ARC, post on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what you have done.  


Young Authors Program said...

The last sentence of your book review says it all, Carol. Follow your dream! Would love to get an arc of this book!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Dorothy. You're a great example of someone who is following her dream too! Started the list with your name.

Donna Earnhardt said...

GREAT post, Carol! I'd love to read this book!

Rosi said...

Very thorough review. I also really loved this book. Glad you enjoyed it as well. Please let someone else win. I have already read this one.

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Dear Carol,
You always get to the crux of the story when you review a book. Thanks for sharing your insights of Juba with us. Thanks to the author, Walter Dean Myers, for making Juba come alive.

Never Give Up

Linda A. said...

I am thrilled to have won "Of Better Blood" by Susan Moger, the last giveaway. The book arrived yesterday in the mail. Thank you.

I love the story of holding onto dreams that this book emphasizes. It's one I'd like to read as well.

I won't ask to have my name in the drawing, but I will post on Facebook because this one deserves it!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, friends. Donna and Joan-- you're in! thanks, Linda and Rosi for your consideration to my other followers.

Barbara Younger said...

Fascinating! I had no idea the beginning of tap dancing was linked to anyone.

Carol Baldwin said...

That's why historical fiction is so cool, Barbara. You're in!

Jo Hackl said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. Many thanks for sharing, Carol. I look forward to reading it.

Carol Baldwin said...

You're in, Jo!

sheri levy said...

Walter Dean Myers wrote so many wonderful books. I must read this you, also. So glad Joan received this book. She pushes us all not to give up and this sounds like a perfect book for her to share.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Sheri. So sweet of you to be glad for Joan. She does encourage us all!

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