Ah the "Roaring Twenties"..this novel set in 1921 is only a few years removed from the tragedy of the First World War but is in many respects light years away socially..if not for African Americans.
The 1920s were a time for new freedoms especially for women including higher hemlines, shorter hair, cocktails and being able to vote..not necessarily in that order. It was also a heady period for the developing American music known as "jazz".
Yet underneath the fizzy era depicted by F. Scott Fitzgerald of bright young things, boom times, flappers and cocktails was a seedy underbelly that viewers of "Boardwalk Empire" may be all too familiar with...prohibition, bootlegging and the rise of the gangster particularly in the midwestern mecca of Chicago where this novel takes place.
Martha Conway's Sugarland immerses the reader into this sparkling but shadowy world through her protagonist an aspiring young pianist Eve Riser, who also happens to be African American and of course a female in a very male dominated sphere. Conway says she was inspired by musicians such as the great Mary Lou Williams and others who held their own against the men creatively but are unless recorded lost to the mists of time.
Eve has her hands full with trying to make her living when she is suddenly witness to not one but two shooting deaths the first perpetrated by her new man saxophonist Gavin Johnson. Escaping with her life and a stack of money foisted upon her she makes her way to Chicago in search of employment and her half sister Chickie, a singer. Further complicating things Chickie is carrying the child of her shady nightclub owner boyfriend who also happens to be white.
Caught in the crossfire of another shooting outside Cobb's club , Eve joins forces with Lena sister of the victim Rudy. Her nursing skills come in handy for Eve and Chickie and their common love of jazz and quest for the identity of her brothers killer plunges them in the dangerous world of gun running and bootlegging where everyone is suspect.
The author's characters are richly drawn and her description of the "conversation" onstage between musicians is beautifully evoked. The current running underneath is the ever present racism and descrimination many of the characters face at every turn sadly not something limited to the distant past. But lest it all seem so bleak there are rays of hope - there is even time for some romance between Eve and supportive bandleader Henry. Eve is a great character and I look forward to a sequel or two....