Book Review: Passing by Samaria

Passing by Samaria by Sharon Elwell FosterPassing by Samaria by Sharon Ewell Foster first interested me because it was written by a black woman, and I don’t know many non-white authors. I thoroughly enjoyed Sharon’s story of a young black woman in Mississippi and Chicago just after World War I, when racism was a hot topic in the States due to many black men fighting beside white soldiers during the War.

Alena is an only child who has lived a fairly sheltered life in Mississippi, surrounded by her parents’ love. Her best friend, JC, went away to fight in World War I and she was awaiting his return. But someone else was also waiting for JC, and the tragedy that hits sends Alena’s world spinning out of control. Unable to understand why her parents, who have always told her to speak the truth, are suddenly covering up what they know, Alena grows angry. When they decide to send her to her aunt’s place in Chicago for her own safety, Alena distances herself from them and from everyone else.

Aunt Patrice runs a mission in Chicago, reaching out to the hundreds of homeless, jobless black people who have flocked to Chicago looking for work and a better life. James, one of few black men to become a major in the war, and Jonathan, his white friend, run a newspaper just down the street from the mission. They try to publish the truth about racism in Chicago, pointing out the inequalities and telling the stories that the white newspapers refuse to tell. Stories about employers who tell Jonathan they need more workers but tell James they aren’t hiring.

But as summer passes in Chicago, more than just the temperature is heating up. Race riots have started in other cities across America, and a fight at the beach one day starts a riot in Chicago. While the city goes crazy, with men facing off against each other just because of the colour of their skin, Alena must make a choice. Will she give up her anger and stay with James to fight for what’s right in Chicago, or will she run off with Pearl, the handsome, charming train conductor who promises her a new life of luxury?

One thing I loved about Passing by Samaria was the dialogue. Sharon captures the voices of the characters with an unerring ear. Early in the novel, JC tells Alena, “This’ll be the war to end all wars. Once we able to prove ourselves, prove the colored man, the Race, is willing to fight and die for our country, I know things gone change.” In some places, long sections of dialogue or monologue slowed the novel down a bit, as Alena’s father or Aunt Patrice got preaching. Other times, I wanted to read these sections out loud, to listen to the lyricism of the voices and the rhythm that Sharon captured.

Passing by Samaria is a beautiful story of one family’s struggle to understand and overcome racism in the States. At the end of the novel, healing comes in a surprising way, yet not all the characters are willing to accept it and let go. And for today’s reader, it may be easy to think that this was something that happened only in the past, that today we’re more “enlightened” and no longer treat people this way. Yet I remember a conversation at the beginning of last year’s US presidential elections, when one person commented that they wouldn’t know who to vote for (Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama) because they didn’t want either a woman or a black man in office.

This year, history was made as for the first time ever, the US has a black president. And there are rumblings of racism towards him. Passing by Samaria gives the reader much to think about when we look at others who are different from ourselves.

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