Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, October 31, 2022

Monday, October 31, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The House of Eve

Simon & Schuster: The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson

Simon & Schuster: The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson

Simon & Schuster: The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson

Simon & Schuster: The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson

The House of Eve

by Sadeqa Johnson

Sadeqa Johnson's powerful, heart-wrenching fifth novel, The House of Eve, follows the experiences of two young Black women in the mid-20th century whose stories intersect in an unexpected way. Told in alternating chapters that vividly bring her two protagonists to life, Johnson's novel explores the nuances of first love, female ambition and colorism in the Black community, along with shame and sacrifice and what it truly means to be a woman.

Johnson (Yellow Wife) opens her narrative with Ruby Pearsall, who is on track--she hopes--to get out of her rough Philadelphia neighborhood. Living with her unconventional Aunt Marie (Ruby's mother, Inez, lives nearby but is not particularly interested in, or available to, her daughter), Ruby works hard at an after-school enrichment program that will give her a shot at a college scholarship. She's constantly fighting to scrape up the change for carfare and ignoring the catcalls (and other advances) of men in the neighborhood, but Ruby is determined to get that scholarship and, eventually, go to medical school. But when she falls in love with Shimmy Shapiro--the boy next door who's not only white, but Jewish--their forbidden love might derail Ruby's dreams and her chance at climbing out of poverty.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Quarles, a brilliant college student from small-town Ohio, is thrilled to be studying at Howard University. She enjoys her classes and her archival work in the campus library, under the direction of Dorothy Porter, a librarian dedicated to preserving Black history. When Eleanor falls in love with William Pride, a handsome medical student, she thinks life is nearly perfect--until she meets his upper-crust parents, pillars of Black Washington, D.C., society. Although his mother disapproves, Eleanor and William soon marry, and Eleanor believes having a child will help her to fit in with her new in-laws and their societal expectations. But as she struggles to carry a child to term, she can't shake the feeling that something is wrong with her.

Through Johnson's sensitive dual narration, she highlights the contrasts and the parallels between her two protagonists. Eleanor comes from a loving family, but finds it hard to share her difficulties with her parents back in Ohio, after all they've sacrificed to send her to Howard. Ruby, not wanting to burden her Aunt Marie, still longs for her mother's affection, although Inez has rejected her on multiple occasions. Both young women must make their own way forward, with limited, albeit necessary, support from the older women in their lives. Each of them also must decide how she wants to live her life: whether and how to juggle love, financial security, career dreams and the chance to build a family.

Johnson's ensemble cast includes a range of characters besides methodical Eleanor and scrappy Ruby, and Aunt Marie, who knows exactly how far to push the envelope to defy convention. Johnson even shows Inez, who seems to prioritize her revolving door of romantic interests over her daughter, in her complexity. Rose Pride, William's mother, rules the social world she has created with an iron fist, and Eleanor meets several fellow Howard students who are poised to follow in Rose's footsteps. Johnson convincingly portrays the experiences of these women of varying ages, skin colors, social classes and generations, as well as auxiliary characters like Eleanor's roommate Nadine and the librarian Mrs. Porter.

Although Johnson treats her characters with compassion, she doesn't shy away from the tough realities of the choices they are forced to make. Ruby must choose between her love for Shimmy and her chance for a secure financial future; although Shimmy swears they can build a life together, Ruby is pragmatic enough to know better. When their love leads to an unexpected pregnancy for Ruby, she is the one who must shoulder the burden of their decisions. However, Mrs. Shapiro intervenes, and Ruby ends up at a home for unwed mothers, where she faces cruelty and condescension, but also forms unexpected bonds with her fellow residents. Meanwhile, though Eleanor loves William and is eager to create a family with him, she quickly learns that being a member of the Pride family--especially being the daughter-in-law Rose Pride didn't expect--is much more complicated than Eleanor thought. Rose's solution to Eleanor's problem will test the bonds of Eleanor's new marriage, as well as shifting her perceptions of what a family should (and can) be.

Full of period details about campus life at Howard University, society functions among D.C.'s Black elite and life in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Philadelphia, The House of Eve illuminates a range of Black female experiences at a time when women were fighting for agency over their own lives. While Ruby and Eleanor face wildly different challenges, their lives and decisions will converge in a way that powerfully shapes both of their futures. Johnson's clear-eyed storytelling will keep readers engrossed, and her deep compassion and insight will provoke reflection on what it means to be a woman and a mother. --Katie Noah Gibson

Simon & Schuster, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9781982197360, February 7, 2023

Simon & Schuster: Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

Sadeqa Johnson: Exploring Motherhood and Sacrifice

(photo: Mary Brown)

Sadeqa Johnson is the award-winning author of five novels, including Yellow Wife. Her accolades include the National Book Club Award, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award and the USA Best Book Award for Best Fiction. Originally from Philadelphia, she lives near Richmond, Va., with her husband and three children. Johnson's fifth novel, The House of Eve (Simon & Schuster, February 7, 2023), follows two young Black women in the 1950s who are forced to make difficult choices relating to motherhood and career ambitions.

What was the inspiration for The House of Eve?

After I wrote Yellow Wife, I thought about writing a young adult novel instead of another historical novel for adults. The character of Ruby came out of an idea I had for a YA novel. She also was partly inspired by my family. I remembered my mother telling me that she didn't know her mother was her mother till she was in the third grade. My grandmother was the black sheep of the family, because she had gotten pregnant at age 14 and had my mother at age 15, out of wedlock, and she had had her in secret. My mom had lived with her grandmother until she was eight, and then she found out that my grandmother was really her mother. I started thinking: How is that situation possible, and what does that do to the child?

I started researching how it was at that time: women and babies and children and sexuality and women having babies outside of wedlock. And I came upon these homes for women. They were largely for white women: teenagers and women in their 20s who were not married. They went into these homes when they were pregnant, and were usually forced to give up their babies. But I couldn't find a Black woman in these stories.

I am a Black woman and I like to write about the Black woman experience. There is not just one single narrative, no matter what we see on TV. I was doing some research about the Black experience, and I read a book called Our Kind of People, about wealthy African Americans who knew their family history for two or three generations. They were doctors and lawyers, and I traced this research into Washington, D.C., and that was the beginning of William and Eleanor's story.

At first the story was just Ruby, but Eleanor came to me, and she was full of rage. She was telling me that she was desperate to have a child, and desperate to fit in, and things were not working out the way she wanted them to. So I created sort of a niche for families who were well-off but wanted to adopt a baby in secret. Adoption in the '40s and '50s was a quiet thing. It wasn't like it is now. And that's how the two narratives came together.

Eleanor's experience at Howard University is wildly different than she expects, after growing up in a mostly white town.

I was watching Toni Morrison's documentary, The Pieces I Am. Morrison was from Ohio, and she said, "I didn't know that [Black] people separated themselves by color until I set foot on Howard's campus." She lived on a block with Germans and Italians and Poles, and everyone looked out for each other. That wasn't my experience, but I made that part of Eleanor's experience. [At Howard], she gets a closer look at the way Black people separated themselves by color.

Of course, that is all leftover baggage from slavery: the light-skinned people who were the master's children, who often worked in the house, and the darker-skinned folks often worked in the fields. The colorism and the social situations at Howard added an extra layer to this transition time for Eleanor--being away from home, being at school, being on the poorer end of the spectrum. There was the classism she faced as well.

Ruby falls in love with a Jewish boy, and both she and the adults in her life understand that this love might hamper her chances at a college degree.

Ruby says in the book that she was okay with being unhappy, but she was not okay with being poor. Sometimes, for girls like Ruby, it's a choice. How long would her happiness last if she was poor? For Ruby, I think the choices were easy. For her family members, the only jobs available were serving white people: cleaning their houses, nannying for them, chauffeuring them. The only way out was an education. And even that was sketchy--because, being poor, you couldn't afford it. A young girl should not have to choose between falling in love and getting an education. But if she didn't choose, this is the reality: she would be dependent on white folks. Being poor--or not being poor--is a strong motivator for a lot of decisions that people like Ruby had to make. Even now, really, that's the case.

Eleanor loves her work at the Howard library, and finds a mentor in Mrs. Porter, the librarian. What was the inspiration for her character?

Mrs. Porter, the librarian, was based on a real person who worked at the Howard library. As a library geek, the library was my foundation for reading and writing. My relationships with the librarians totally fueled who I am today. The best secrets in books happen by accident, and when I stumbled upon Dorothy Porter's character, I had to figure out how to weave her in. Those scenes were a pure joy for me--writing about a woman who worked so hard to preserve African and African American and Caribbean history. I loved being able to tie Eleanor into something so historically sound, which was also very important to her character.

Shame is a common theme in the novel: both Eleanor and Ruby are shamed for their choices and also for their struggles.

Shame for women is just rampant in our culture. If my kids misbehave, people are going to blame me--not their father! Anything that happens in the family structure is the woman's fault. My daughter couldn't find a homecoming dress that fit her shape. I told her, "It's not you that are wrong--it's the dressmakers thinking that we all fit into this one category." I think that's the case for Ruby and Eleanor: Ruby not fitting into Mrs. Shapiro's world, checking any of the boxes she thought would be a good fit for her son. And as for Eleanor, she was not of this wealthy society that Rose Pride thought William should marry into. Women tend to think of this as their own fault, if they can't get pregnant or they can't carry a baby. Women are taught that at a very early age, and that's something we deal with unless someone teaches you how to stop.

The House of Eve is ostensibly the story of two women, but really it's about multiple women: Ruby and Eleanor, their mothers, Ruby's aunt Marie, Mrs. Porter. What do you think is important about that ensemble cast?

So many of the Black women on TV look the same--they all act the same. In The House of Eve, we have different colors, different classes, different socioeconomic backgrounds. I think all these different Black characters in this story creates the melting pot. There's all these different versions of our story that are being told. --Katie Noah Gibson

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