Jam on the Vine

2 of 17
Jam on the Vine
336 pages; Grove Press
Jam on the Vine, LaShonda Katrice Barnett's fiction debut, consists of a trio of stories that begin in 1897 and chronicle the growing pains of a nation. The book centers on the emergence of a leading "Race Woman" and intellectual powerhouse, Ivoe Williams, and her creation, a community newspaper aimed at black readers.

Unlike many others in Little Tunis, Texas, the Williamses aren't sharecroppers; they make their living from blacksmithing and other low-paying work. As poor as they are, they are never down-and-out. When Ivoe's mother is unfairly fired from her job as a cook, she adapts by selling her renowned homemade preserves. Ivoe absorbs essential life lessons from observing the adults around her and thrives in school; so deeply does she love language that the dictionary is her favorite book. When starved for something to read—the family owns no books—she filches newspapers and devours every line.

Ivoe's interest in journalism deepens after she meets Ona Durden, who poses a question that shapes the rest of Ivoe's life: "What work are you doing for the race?" Ivoe's answer is the newspaper business, about which Ona teaches her everything. Ivoe learns to use her role as an editorialist to call for racial equality. And as she grows professionally and politically, she blossoms sexually, discovering a passion for women.

After cofounding the paper Jam on the Vine, Ivoe's editorials sharpen. By 1919 (when real-life race riots left many communities in flames), her articles are met with violence. Ivoe is brutally assaulted, yet the attack only strengthens her resolve.

Weaving actual historical records throughout, Barnett creates an ode to activism, writing with a scholar's eye and a poet's soul.
— Tayari Jones