With her debut novel, "Moonrise Over New Jessup," Jamila Minnicks delves into the intricacies of the civil rights movement, offering an enlightening look at Black communities in the 1950s and '60s that saw a better future without racial integration.
Narrated by Alice Young, Minnicks' novel begins just a few weeks after Alice has buried her father, leaving her alone in her Alabama hometown. After she fights off an attempted rape by her landlord, she fears retaliation and runs away with just enough money for a one-way ticket to Birmingham.
Alice hopes to contact and eventually reunite with her older sister in Chicago, but her plans shift during a bus stop in New Jessup, a Black enclave where "up and down the avenue, Negroes of every shade came together," and signs designating separate "White" and "Colored" entrances don't exist.
With the help of community members, Alice settles into a life there, securing an apartment and taking on work with a dressmaker. She marries Raymond Campbell, a mechanic whose grandfather was one of the town's founders. With their relationship as the book's center, Minnicks deftly explores the debate over the best way for Black Americans to live freely in a racist society.
For Alice, who previously spent "every waking hour" of her life "navigating a world of invisible lines and unwritten rules just to stay alive," New Jessup offers "freedom to shed all that." While her childhood had been defined by limitations, Alice sees a young girl in New Jessup full of "confidence that this would always be her world."
To Raymond, though, New Jessup's freedoms are weighed down by compromises with the white-led Jessup on the other side of the woods. The residents of New Jessup are haunted by a white-led riot 50 years earlier that destroyed a previously thriving incarnation of the town. Now, New Jessup has limited independence, but its municipal dollars are meted out by the white Jessup's city council.
As a member of the National Negro Advancement Society, Raymond wants more autonomy, but his activism is muzzled in a place where political agitation carries the threat of instigating another attack. Many people, including his wife, see fighting for more as an invitation to bring "the evils of whitefolks" into lives that have been relatively free of them.
Throughout the novel, Minnicks' portrait of Alice feels achingly real in the way her family's traumas shape her hopes and hesitations, and in the way she counters what she sees as Raymond's sheltered idealism with her lived reality. The artful rendering doesn't carry through some of the novel's other characters, though, as they fall into types, and occasionally, the novel's dialogue becomes overwrought with speechifying and too smoothly prepared in intimate moments between Alice and Raymond.
Still, reading "Moonrise Over New Jessup" reminds us of the way that history gains a buffed gloss when we condense it into smooth movements. Minnicks' novel keeps us from losing sight of how foggy the path forward actually was.
Vikas Turakhia is an English teacher in Ohio.
Moonrise Over New Jessup
By: Jamila Minnicks.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 336 pages, $28.