2021 might be the year of historical fiction. Works of this genre offer a safe expedition to the past while simultaneously granting the reader guaranteed adventure, love and excitement that our lives seem to lack in a perpetual pandemic — or maybe that’s just me. I’ve devoured numerous works of historical fiction over the past year, falling prey to the 2008 New York Times bestseller “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” as well as more recent works like Janet Skeslien Charles’s “The Paris Library,” which hit shelves this February.
But none of my past historical fiction flings have yet to rival Denny S. Bryce’s debut novel “Wild Women and the Blues.” Though the title alludes to blues music created by African Americans in the early 20th century, particularly in the South, the novel is centered around the 1920s Jazz Age in Chicago.
Bryce highlights the era with protagonist Honoree Dalcour, a determined dancer in Chicago’s Black Belt. She dreams of working as a chorus girl at the Dreamland Cafe, “the ritziest black-and-tan nightclub on the Stroll,” frequented by leading figures of the Jazz Age: Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin and more.
The aforementioned historical figures double as characters in the novel, becoming friends of Honoree in 1925 and, later, points of research for our present-day protagonist Sawyer Hayes. The novel follows two timelines and Sawyer is our guide in the present, a graduate student desperate to finish his thesis on the era, and, most notably, on “the legendary Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.” After a tragic loss interrupted his project’s trajectory, Sawyer is left with several holes to fill, and the 110-year-old Honoree Dalcour has all the answers.
Bryce’s execution of the novel is fascinating. We move from Sawyer’s perspective at the Bronzeville Senior Living Facility in Chicago as he attempts to draw out information from the stubborn and unforthcoming elderly Honoree to the young Honoree in her own ambitious attempts to move up the ladder from her position at Miss Hattie’s, a small speakeasy, to the monumental Dreamland Cafe and hopefully Broadway thereafter.
It was difficult to choose which aspect of the novel was most captivating. Bryce’s authentic portrait of the 1920s was embellished with suspense through her inclusion of conflicting tensions of race relations, Prohibition and allusions to organized crime. On the other hand, Bryce’s flair for romance and genuine descriptions of grief and familial drama was just as absorbing and essential to the novel’s overall development and execution.
With a quick introduction from Sawyer, the novel delves deep into the 1920s with Honoree on her way to audition for an esteemed position at the Dreamland Cafe. Honoree is sneaking out of Miss Hattie’s to the audition when she agrees to do her friend a favor. However, the favor turns deadly and leaves Honoree defenseless in the middle of a conspiracy tied to no other crime boss than Al Capone himself.
As the novel shifts between perspectives, secrets both new and old are revealed and a surprising amount of tension keeps the reader guessing. Though Honoree’s chapters were longer and more exuberant, I never questioned the relevancy of Sawyer’s shorter sections. Bryce designed a careful and meticulous trajectory that makes Sawyer’s sections invaluable. Honoree’s sections would leave the reader with hundreds of questions, only to be followed by Sawyer’s perspective as he attempted to solve the mysteries just presented before us.
Beyond utilizing Sawyer as a tool to keep the reader engaged and informed, Bryce also developed an intriguing backstory that wormed its way into the larger plotline. The death of his sister long haunted Sawyer, and his grief infected his familial relationships, prevented his thesis progress and almost left him dead.
But it’s this all-consuming pain that connects him to Honoree, and it’s her who helps him to heal, resolve his own mistakes and come to terms with his past. While it might be expected for our two protagonists to help each other out in this way, the following turn of events that occur as Sawyer begins to heal are unforeseen and the conclusions he reaches are startling. Bryce begs the reader to ponder what other connections might lie between these characters, whose secrets appear to extend far beyond the storyline Bryce originally established.
Bryce weaves an addicting, suspenseful novel. I was constantly evaluating the motivations of the characters, changing my mind about whom I trusted and all the while learning about both the fantastical and tense historical period. Bryce keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very end when the final revelations emerge and the mysteries of the past are at last uncovered.
Daily Arts Writer Lilly Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.