Sister of Mine Wins 2017 Audie Award for Fiction

When my book, Sister of Mine, became a finalist for the 2017 Audie Awards for fiction, I was pretty surprised. The book was in some distinguished company.

And when I learned yesterday that Sister of Mine had been named the winner, I nearly fell off my chair. It's a great honor, and all heartfelt congratulations to my wonderful and talented narrator, Bahni Turpin, the whole production team at Brilliance Publishing, and everyone atLake Union Publishing as well.

A friend kidded me, "Now you'll have to put stickers on all your books!" And I'm laughing, thinking, Where do we put the stickers on the digital audiobooks?

It's great to win!

Discussion Guide for Sister of Mine Now Available

Now that I've received more than one request for a discussion guide, I decided to post it on my website. I'm always very happy when book clubs decide to read my book and share their thoughts an feeling about it. If your book club has chosen the book and would like a few questions, you can find them here. Please feel free to adapt, use, and share them!

For those of you who are reading the earlier edition, Slave and Sister, be reassured that the main changes to the new editon are to the title and the cover. The story is the same.

Sister of Mine a 2017 Audie Award Finalist for Fiction

When I learned that the audiobook version of Sister of Mine had been nominated for the award that the Audio Publishers Association likes to call its "Oscar," I was pleasantly surprised. Yesterday, when my book was shortlisted in the Fiction category, I was stunned and delighted
in equal measure.

Winners will be announced in June, but as with the Oscar, getting onto the short list is an honor in itself. I'm in very distinguished company--Stephen King and Julian Fellowes, among others, are fiction short-listers as well. Thanks and congratulations are in order to the talented Bahni Turpin, who brought the book to life as the narrator.

The audiobook is available on both Amazon and Audible.

A Post-Election Glimmer of Light

When I got up on the morning after the presidential election, I was feeling disheartened. This campaign has been hard to watch, from start to finish, whatever your political affiliation. But I had a pleasanter surprise on that post-election morning.

My second book, Freedom’s Island, ordinarily gets much less attention than my first, Sister of Mine. But on November 8th and 9th, readers found Freedom’s Island, borrowed it, and read it with such intensity that it’s showing a spike in pages read that I’ve never seen before.

Freedom’s Island, set in 1886, is the story of an all-black Mississippi town that stands up to intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan, led by a man who lets go the bitterness of his past. It’s a tale of courage and hope in the face of hatred, and in a shadowed moment in the present, I hope that it can offer readers a glimmer of light.

With that hope in mind, I’m discounting the e-book to $2.99 for the remainder of 2016. Please take a look at it. We need more glimmers of light.

SOM News: Still Time for a Discount

My grandpa, who grew up painfully poor in Poland in the 1890s, relished a bargain for the rest of his life. Well into his ninth decade, he walked blocks in the heat of Miami Beach to save a few cents on oranges or cream soda.

So he'd be pleased to know that my book, Sister of Mine, can be had at a discount. Throughout the month of September, for readers in the U. S., the Kindle version of the book is reduced to $1.99 (regular price $3.99). And for those enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, it's an even better bargain--it's free. My grandpa would kvell to know.

Keep reading!

What I’m Reading: Kristin Levine, The Lions of Little Rock

In keeping with my serendipitous approach to discovering books, I found Kristin Levine’s book, The Lions of Little Rock, in the Little Free Library down the street. I read a fair number of books that I enjoy as a reader, but this one also filled me with admiration as a writer.

The Lions of Little Rock is historical fiction aimed at adolescent readers. It covers the historical moment in the year after Little Rock’s schools were desegregated, under the blaze of publicity and the eye of the nation. The subsequent year was quieter but no less fraught with conflict for the residents of Little Rock, black and white, and no less perilous, either.

The book is the story of an unusual and difficult friendship between a shy white girl and an outgoing black girl, who befriends her. Their friendship unfolds in a context of racism and violence, and while the connection between the two girls is sweet, the events in the wider world are not. Levine doesn’t ignore or sugarcoat the historical record, even though she’s writing about the kind of dangerous and fearful things that many people would consider inappropriate for children to read.

I won’t give away the details of the story—I recommend that anyone who cares about racial justice and overcoming prejudice read the book—but I can say that I read this book with a lump in my throat. Sentiment is out of fashion in grown-up literature in this century, but thankfully kids’ books get a pass. I felt like I needed a hankie at the end of the story, in the best possible way.

As a writer of historical fiction, I was full of admiration for Levine’s deft touch. It isn’t easy to write a story that’s historically true, both in its details and in its atmosphere, and she has done it. And it’s even harder to write in a pitch-perfect adolescent voice, and she’s done that as well. I write for adults, but there are elements in Levine’s writing that inspire me. I hope that my books do as well in reaching readers across the historical divide, and in making them smile and sniffle at the same time.


History: The Minnesota State Fair, 1903

I live in Minnesota, a once-agricultural state where the state fair remains a big deal. Growing up, I assumed that every state held its annual fair in the biggest city, and I committed the ultimate hayseed gaffe at Harvard, asking a Manhattanite if Gotham hosted the event. (I later learned where the New York state fair is—on a cross-country trip, I had the misfortune to look for a hotel room in Syracuse on the day it opened.)

So I was delighted to find a photograph that speaks both to to my interest in African-American history and my pride as a Minnesotan. The photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston, was best known for her portraits of the day’s celebrities, but she took pictures wherever she went.  In 1903, she toured the western United States (everything west of Ohio was considered west) and stopped at the Minnesota State Fair, where a group of African-American women, visitors to the fair, caught her eye.

To this day, Minnesota’s state fair is a great leveler, and everyone goes there—farmers, urbanites, suburbanites, people who like farm animals, people who like farm machinery, people who like the midway, and people who like music. This year, sadly, the Minnesota State Fair is honoring Prince. I wonder what Frances Benjamin Johnston would make of it.

History: A Cat May Look at a King

In short succession, I read Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Jackie Robinson and saw Ken Burns’ documentary about him. Robinson had greater historical moments, but I was struck by this photograph of Robinson as he left the Dodgers’ clubhouse for the last time. The clubhouse cat sits in the doorway, gazing at the king of baseball. It is the oddest and saddest image—burly Robinson, with his bag jauntily slung over his shoulder, and the cat, so small and quizzical. I’m sentimental about cats and emotional about race, so this photo really got to me.

Soundtrack: Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks

Before Miriam Makeba was “Mama Africa,” she was the lead singer—and the bandleader—for a four-woman group called The Skylarks. She had begun her singing career a few years earlier, when she joined the Manhattan Brothers, South Africa’s most popular singing group. Her first recording with them was “Baby Ntsore” (which is on their compilation, the best of the Manhattan Brothers—that high soaring voice is hers!), but her first big hit was “Laku Tshon iLanga,” later released in English as “Lovely Lies.”

The Skylarks assembled in the recording studio in 1956, when their label, Gallotone, wanted to create a close-harmony vocal group modeled after the Andrews Sisters. (Ironically, the Andrews Sisters were at their best in singing jump blues. Call and response or co-optation? It’s the history of African-inspired music, over and over). After a few changes to the lineup, four singers made up the Skylarks: Makeba, Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabotapi, and Abigail Kubeka. The group combined swing jazz and the close harmonies of doo-wop with local South African musical traditions. They were backed on many of their songs by Spokes Mashiyane, who played the pennywhistle with an unparalleled depth and soul.

The Skylarks were enormously popular in South Africa, but Makeba, bandleader and front singer, achieved much greater fame. In 1958, she appeared in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary produced and directed by American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin; the film won the Critics’ Award at the 24th Venice Film Festival in 1959. She was also cast to sing the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African musical King Kong. musician Hugh Masekela, later her husband, was in the cast.

Her prominence led to a contract with RCA in the United States; her first album was released in 1960, as the massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa, became global news and the source of global outrage. Siemon Allen, who contributes to the blog Electric Jive, which focuses on the music of South Africa, writes, “For many Americans she became the single face, literally, of a distant country in crisis.” It was the beginning of her career as the world’s “face of Africa,” which continued until her death in 2008.


Miriam Makeba on 78rpm (1955-1959),” Electric Jive (December 23, 2013).

Ed Kopp, “Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks: Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks Vol. 1/Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks Vol. 2,” All About Jazz (April 12, 2002)

What I’m Reading: Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail

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  Edwin Forbes,  Study of a mule team and wagon, with driver  (September 30, 1863). Library of Congress.

Edwin Forbes, Study of a mule team and wagon, with driver (September 30, 1863). Library of Congress.

Rinker Buck’s book, The Oregon Trail, is the best possible combination of memoir, travelogue, and history you can imagine. It began with a notion that Buck himself calls “crazyass,” to traverse the historic Oregon trail in a mule-drawn wagon. He enlisted his brother Nick, an expert team driver and mechanical genius, and the two of them, at loose ends in their lives, journeyed together from the trail’s beginning in Missouri to its end in Oregon. Imagine Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac on the road together.

While I loved everything about this book, I read one of its strands with particular interest: what Buck says about mules. Buck writes about mules as though mules and horses are running for President and he’s campaigning for mules. He is eloquent about their strength, their hardiness, their longevity, and their intelligence. From their donkey side, they’ve inherited superior peripheral vision, keener hearing, and a bigger brain than a horse’s. Horses, Buck says, will obey. Mules, who can see better, hear better, and think better, will consider what they’re asked to do. They will ponder it.

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    Virginia. Mule team crossing a brook   , 1862-1865. Library of Congress.

Virginia. Mule team crossing a brook, 1862-1865. Library of Congress.

Buck admits that he has some difficulties in his relationships with human beings. He is divorced. His connection with his brother Nick is conflicted, and the journey sometimes tries it. He is haunted by the memories of his late father, for whom he feels a classic ambivalence.

But he is unabashed in his affection for his lead mule, Jake. When he first meets Jake, the mule nuzzles him with such vigor that he’s lifted into the air. Buck writes, “I loved that mule then and there.” On a harrowing moment in the journey—driving the mules parallel to the train tracks, hoping to keep them from bolting as a train goes by inches away—he calls on Jake to “hold them back,” and when Jake does, Buck calls, “‘Good team! Good team! …You’re my team! I love you, Jake!’”

Mules live and work together, but a team of mules is more than animals who share a yoke. Mules bond with each other and get so attached that they will fall into a depression if they’re separated. By the end of the journey, Buck can’t bear to break up the mule team, and he is relieved to find a buyer who wants to keep the three mules together. As Buck says goodbye to Jake, he is full of emotion. The greater team, mules and men on the open road, has now broken up, and he will miss it forever.

Reprise: A Seder for Freedom, Part 2

The former slaves put on their meeting clothes and came shyly through the front door, not believing that they were welcome as guests. Their former mistress said, “Come in, all of you, into the dining room.”

The silver candlesticks had been set on the sideboard, and every leaf had been added to the table, which was covered with the damask tablecloth. Rachel and Adelaide had put out the full set of china, and there was a wine glass at every place.

Zeke said to Adelaide, “It’s really all right, ma’am? To set on these fine chairs and use them glasses?”

“Yes, it is.” She settled her guests, who sat stiffly in the chairs, and touched the silver forks and spoons in surprise.

All her life, Rachel had stood against the wall, waiting to serve during the Seder. She had listened to the story of freedom as a slave, unwelcome at the table. Now she sat, the silver Kiddush cup at her place, ready to hear the familiar story of slavery and freedom as an honored guest.

Adelaide read from the Haggadah in Hebrew: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.”

Rachel looked around the table, at the polite and puzzled faces of the other former slaves, who didn’t know the service, and for whom the Hebrew words were a mystery. She said to Adelaide, “Don’t read from your Passover book.”

“How will we have a proper Seder?”

“I’ll tell it.”

Before Adelaide could stop her, Rachel said, “A long time ago, in Bible times, the Jews were slaves to the Egyptians. The Egyptians made them work hard, in the hot sun, and their taskmasters—their overseers—beat the people if they didn’t work hard enough.” The people around the table began to murmur, a polite version of the way they called out in meeting. Rachel lifted her eyes to look around the table, seeing the interest in each face.

She said, “Pharaoh hated the Jews so much that he wanted to kill every boy baby that was born. But the Jews were too smart for him. They hid the babies, and one mother put her baby in a little ark of bulrushes, for Pharaoh’s daughter to find and to take in.”

Families torn asunder. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters sold away. They all remembered.

“Pharaoh’s daughter called him Moses, and when he grew up he found out how the Egyptians oppressed their slaves. His people. Killed the overseer who was beating a slave, and ran away into the desert.”

Wrought vengeance and stole away.

“But God had plans for him, and told him to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go. Wasn’t eager to do it. God had to prod him.

“Pharaoh was a hard man, harder than the worst Massa you ever saw, and God made his heart even harder.” Murmurs of agreement, and soft laughter around the table. “He told Moses no, wouldn’t let the slaves go free. So God sent plagues, one after another, every one worse than the last. Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Blight, like boll rot. Boils. Locusts to eat up the crop. Darkness in the middle of the day. And the last, the worst, striking every Egyptian first-born son dead, from the poorest Egyptian right up to Pharaoh himself.”

Laughter, louder now, at the vengeance on the Egyptians, who had oppressed the slaves so badly.

“The slaves got ready to go, but they were in such a hurry they couldn’t make proper bread. They made flat cakes, like johnnycake, and they packed up to leave. Pharaoh wasn’t done with them yet. He sent his army, all his horses and carts, right after them. But when they came to the Red Sea, the waters parted and they walked right through. Pharaoh’s army came after them and the waters covered them. But the Jews, the slaves, they were saved. They were free.”

There was silence around the table. Even the most fractious of them sat quietly, their faces reflective, as they recalled all of the pain of slavery, and all of the joy of Emancipation, and all of the turmoil since, of being free.

Micah broke the silence and began to sing. Lydia joined in, her lovely soprano twining around his pleasant baritone.

He sang of Moses, and Israel in the land of Egypt, and pleading with Pharaoh to let the people go free.

Adelaide said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that song before.”

Micah said, “It’s new, ma’am, since the war.”

“What is it called?”

Like every slave, Micah could wrap his mockery in the most servile of tones. “Called ‘Song of the Contrabands,’ ma’am, since they were the first to sing it.” Contrabands were slaves who had freed themselves before Emancipation by slipping away to the protection of the Union Army.

Charlie blurted out, “Can’t you behave any better than that? Missus Adelaide invites you into her house, sets you at her table, and you act like that! A free man has better manners!”

Micah addressed his former mistress with elaborate politeness. “I beg your pardon, ma’am.”

Adelaide looked around at all of her restless former slaves. A former slaveowner needed good manners, too. Sweetly—the lady’s way of irony—she said, “It’s a fine song. Perhaps, next year, it will be called ‘Song of the Freedmen.’”


Reprise: A Seder for Freedom, Part 1

As Lake Union is re-issuing my book, I'm resting a bit on the Passover holiday and re-publishing an earlier post on the relevant topic of "a Seder for Freedom."

After Emancipation, like everyone else on the place, Rachel pondered the meaning of freedom. The dreams that had sustained her when she was a slave—a silk dress, new books, a house of her own, money of her own—seemed foolish now. As Passover approached, she thought about freedom more than ever. She was no longer a slave in the land of Egypt. She craved the words of the Seder to tell her so.

She asked Adelaide, her former mistress, “Should we have Passover this year?”

Adelaide said sharply, “Do we need to? The children of Israel just got freed and it’s Passover every day now.”

Rachel said, “I want to do it proper. Hear the words in the Passover book.”

“Never knew you cared so much about Passover.”

Rachel quoted, “Avadim hayinu b’erez mizrayim. I’ve heard those words every year of my life. Do you think I didn’t know what they meant?”

Adelaide said to Rachel, “Do you really want to stir up everyone on the place by reminding them of the story of getting free from Egypt?”

Rachel said, “Everyone already stirred up.”

Adelaide asked, “What about you? Are you?”

Rachel was silent, but not as a slave was silent. She didn’t cast her eyes down, or soften her expression. She stared at her sister, reminding her of the way they’d read the Emancipation Proclamation together.

Adelaide sat back wearily in her chair. “Don’t know how we’ll manage without matzah.”

Rachel laughed. “We could mix together cornmeal and water, bake it into a pone, put it on a plate, and call it the bread of affliction.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

A week before the holiday, Adelaide came back from her father’s place with a basket over her arm. She set it on the kitchen table and said to Rachel, “You’ll never guess what came through the blockade.”

“Coffee?” Rachel missed coffee even more than she missed marmalade.

Adelaide opened the basket and folded back the napkin. Wrapped in it were three rounds of matzah. “Bread of affliction.”


This Week's Soundtrack: Go Down Moses

   Paul Robeson , photographed by Gordon Parks in June 1942, public domain

Paul Robeson, photographed by Gordon Parks in June 1942, public domain

As Passover approaches, what other song could I be listening to? Paul Robeson’s version is one of the most famous, which is particularly fitting, because his wife Eslanda Goode was a descendant of the Sephardic Cardozo family of Charleston.

If you belonged to a Reform synagogue in the 1970s, you’ll remember the “Freedom Seder” of those days. The first Freedom Seder was the effort of Arthur Waskow, a civil rights activist who later became a rabbi. In 1968, Passover began a week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the connection inspired Waskow to reimagine the Haggadah and the Seder. The first Freedom Seder was held on the anniversary of King’s death, reinforcing the bittersweet connection between Jewish Exodus and black emancipation. “Go Down Moses” has long been part of the liturgy of freedom, Jewish and black, and it has become a standard part of the liberal Seder.

The song itself dates back to the days of slavery, when Harriet Tubman used it as a message to guide escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad. But it came to new prominence during the Civil War. In 1861, it was recorded by the Reverend L. C. Lockwood, chaplain to the contrabands at Fort Monroe and published by Horace Waters, who specialized in publishing hymns, as sheet music in December of that year. It became popular among white audiences. When President Lincoln visited one of the contraband camps, he joined a prayer meeting to sing it with the congregation, with great emotion.

The title on the sheet music of 1861 wasn’t “Go Down Moses” or “Let My People Go.” It was “The Song of the Contrabands.” And the story of the contrabands is the story of the road to emancipation, as powerful as the story of the Exodus.

Shortly after the war broke out, three Virginia slaves escaped across the James River to Fort Monroe, held by the Union Army. Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend were all unwilling laborers for the Confederacy, building cannon nests across the river. When they met with the fort’s Commanding General, Benjamin F. Butler, they presented Butler with a dilemma. Technically, they were fugitive slaves. But they were fugitives with useful military intelligence.

  Rappahannock River, Va.  Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock , photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, August 1862, public domain

Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock, photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, August 1862, public domain

When their master’s agent, a Confederate officer, appeared before Butler to ask for their return, Butler gave him an ingenious answer. The men were not fugitive slaves. Since just-seceded Virginia was a foreign country at war with the United States, these slaves were property seized in wartime—they were “contraband of war.”

Days later, nearly fifty more slaves arrived at Fort Monroe, among them women and children. And a week later, a Massachusetts soldier wrote home: “Slaves are brought here hourly.” Whatever their status, slave or free, the “contrabands” were soon put to work to cook meals, wash clothes, and dig latrines; by September, they were being paid for their work. Their numbers at Fort Monroe swelled to the point that the contrabands built a camp outside the fort. Wherever the Union Army fought, the contrabands followed. By 1865, the Union Army would manage a hundred contraband camps throughout the South.

The “Grand Contraband Camp” near Fort Monroe became the focal point for a social experiment that was a “rehearsal for Reconstruction.” The American Missionary Association, which would send teachers into the South as “soldiers of light and love,” hired their first black teacher, Mary S. Peake, to educate the contrabands in Virginia. Peake held her classes beneath a large oak tree. The tree still stands on the campus of Hampton Institute, one of the earliest black institutions of higher education in the South, the oak that grew from the acorn planted by Peake and the contrabands she taught.

“The Song of the Contrabands,” which began as a spiritual cry against slavery, had taken on another meaning by the time it touched the heart of the President. It became a political plea as well—not just for exodus but for emancipation. It would take another year of bloody fighting, but on January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln would proclaim the words that would make the former slaves—whether contrabands or not—“forever free.”



Adam Goodheart, “How Slavery Really Ended in America,” New York Times Magazine April 1, 2011. An account as compelling as fiction, which this post is deeply indebted to.

Aurora Mendelsohn, “From the Civil War to Our Seders, a Song of Redemption,” Forward April 1, 2011.

Deena Prichep, “In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together,” National Public Radio, aired April 4, 2015. Accompanied by a wonderful photograph.


Sister of Mine News: Thank You, U. K. Readers!

I’ve been watching the book’s progress with great interest, and I’m absolutely delighted by the warm welcome it’s received from readers in the United Kingdom.

Of course, it’s a thrill for an author to see a book become a best seller, but it’s been even better to see that readers are enjoying the book so much.

A big thank you to all of my new readers in the U. K. Keep reading!

My Ancestry: 97% Boring

My husband and I are both fascinated by genealogy—he’s tracing his family history, and I use genealogical records for research—and I gave him a DNA test as a birthday present. (If you do this, wrap it really nicely. There’s nothing that says “Happy Birthday” like a tube to spit in.)

He didn’t expect to learn anything earth-shattering. And when the test results came back, they mostly confirmed what he already knew, that he’s a typical American mix of English and Scottish on one side of the family, and Swiss on the other. But there were a few surprises. He had a surprising percentage of Scandinavian DNA. Remember that Danish invasion of England, back in the Middle Ages? For several centuries, northern England was called the “Danelaw.” And that sprinkling of Italian ancestry? Switzerland has long been a melting pot in its own right, part German, part French, and part Italian.

Guess what? 2% of his DNA was of Native American origin, as family lore had it. Sometimes the family lore is true.

So I got excited to find out my own genetic makeup, and I mailed away for my own kit and sent it back to be tested. My family is East European and Jewish on both sides, but my ancestors lived in Eastern Europe for centuries, and I figured that however Jewish I am genetically, I’d have some Slavic ancestry as well. We have family lore about Mongol ancestry (another invasion, the Mongols came that far west into Russia and Poland), and I was curious about that too.

When I got the results I was much more surprised than my husband had been.

I’m 97% Ashkenazic Jewish, 2% Asiatic (aha! that’s the Mongol part), and 1% Middle Eastern in ancestry. I guess someone, way back, married a Hittite.

But the 97% stumped me. It’s hard to imagine that Jews could live in the midst of Russians and Poles for so long and have so little genetic admixture. I can believe that Jews were highly endogamous, because of intense pressures from within and without.

But the 97% isn’t about the people who stayed in, through in-marriage and anti-Semitism. It’s about the people who left.

Until recently, a Jew who married out stopped being a Jew. Religious families didn’t just pretend that the person was dead—they sat shiva in mourning as though a real death, and not a social one, had taken place. And that person very likely converted, assuming a new religious and social identity that replaced the old one. As with light-skinned black people who passed for white, Jews who stopped being Jewish added their genetic heritage to a Polish on Russian one in secret.

Thanks to the DNA test, I met a few Jews I hadn’t known I was related to. Somewhere out there are folks of Polish or Russian ancestry I might be related to. They might be uneasy to be related to me, but to my mind, that’s the interesting story.