Give James Fearn credit for sincerity and ambition. The 83-year-old novelist attempts to chart the bumpy course of American racial justice from 1899 to 1940 in Nightingales Are Singing, the saga of one multiracial family. Fearn takes pains to invoke most of the era’s major players: the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP, the labor and women’s suffrage movements, FDR’s New Deal, progressive Christian evangelism and the bright minds of the Harlem Renaissance.
Although such giants as W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright are nowhere to be found, the author has some ideas about the liberating power of 1930s jazz and the noblesse oblige of the Salvation Army.
Fearn’s heroine is a black Boston judge named Frances Bailey Stanley, the daughter of a Louisiana slave, who graduates from Yale Law School, marries a devoted white husband and gets involved in the vital social issues of her time — all the while inspiring two more generations of visionary Stanleys. Frances is an admirable and upright character — “the guiding star of a remarkable family” — but she can’t overcome this book’s faulty chronologies, wayward language and cultural misunderstandings. Fearn is Australian, but he should have done enough research to know that the U.S. Congress is not a “parliament,” our jail is not “gaol” and no Bostonian of 1900 used the word porn.
Moreover, Sicilian Mafia dons don’t talk like Col. Sanders (“These days, ah just do a bit of investin,’ ” one Angelo Gobbo announces), and Fearn’s assertion that, by the 1920s, school desegregation, color-blind equality and the happy careers of African-American artists, politicians and professionals were going full steam ahead is far from the truth.
Fearn’s industriousness and obvious commitment to civil rights are to be applauded. His technical, factual and perceptual errors make for a losing battle with historical fiction.
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