For lovers of historical fiction and stories set in Pittsburgh Kathleen George’s latest novel is a win-win.
The setting is Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the years 1936-1946 when “the Hill” was a city in and of itself filled with homes, shopping, restaurants, hotels, entertainment and one of and one of the country’s major jazz scenes.
The main characters are a beautiful young Lebanese American girl named Marie and the likewise beautiful and young Lena Horne. Lena, who had been living in New York is considering moving back to Pittsburgh at her father’s urging. Lena is already well known on the jazz circuit, but not yet a national sensation. Her father would like her to quit show business and settle down to a normal life. Marie works in her family’s grocery store and does some sewing work on the side, which is how she has a chance to get to know Lena.
The story of the two young women and the challenges each of them face is told in parallel for the most part, with occasional intersections sometimes involving a charming young boy, Josiah, who they both know and like. Lena’s life looks enviable to outsiders. She has nice clothes and knows famous band leaders and singers, but her life is also full of hardships and the humiliations that all people born with dark skin had to deal with at this point in American history. Marie’s life seems ordinary and she often wonders what it would be like to “make it” in ways that Lena is able. On the other hand, Marie finds happiness and true love in ways that make her life seem the more enviable at times.
The book’s pace accelerates as you move through and becomes a real page turner when their mutual friend Josiah is arrested for a crime which they are both certain he did not commit. This storyline is a surprising addition which allows us to see how alike Marie and Lena are. They are both strong women who are willing to take risks to get things done.
As a footnote, I went to a reading of this book by the author, she told how she got the idea for the book. She knew she wanted to write about Lena Horne and her connection to Pittsburgh. Then she realized her mother and Lena were of a similar age and she started imagining how they may have been friends had they had a chance to know one another. The result is an entertaining book that gives the reader a brief window back to a time when the Hill District was rich with diversity, life, culture and music.