Hidden Figures: So Much More than the Movie

Hidden Figures

By Margot Lee Shetterly

Published 2016

Read July 2020

This reader had seen the movie “Hidden Figures” which was based on this book.  When this reader’s discussion group decided to read it as part of our upcoming season, this reader was prepared for the book to cover the same ground in words vs live action.  This reader was absolutely delighted to learn that although the movie was loosely based on the book (various liberties were taken to convey major themes of the book which were supported by the author and the three main characters), the book offers much more. The movie adaptation was well done and received critical acclaim and many awards including nomination for Best Picture at the 89th annual Academy Awards.  It’s possible that the Congressional Gold Medals awarded the three women in 2019 (post-humorously for Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan), the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson in 2015, and naming of NASA facilities for Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson in 2019 and 2020 were influenced by Shetterly’s book and movie which made the major contributions of these Hidden Figures visible. 

Shetterly gives us three histories in her book:  a history of the Langley aeronautical research facility, a look at gender and race barriers faced by black mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and  a history of segregation in schools.  She does this via the stories of three amazing mathematicians who gently but powerfully broke gender and race barriers during their tenures at Langley.  She comments early in the book that she discovered that there were hundreds of women at what is now known as Langley Research Center both black and white that made major contributions to the war efforts of WWI and WWII and to the space program that launched men into space and landed them on the moon.  In addition, these women broke race and gender barriers regarding the appropriateness and usefulness of women, black and white, in science and engineering.   By telling the stories of these remarkable women, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, Shetterly engages the reader in real stories that illuminate the histories she reveals. 

Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was established in 1917 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a US government agency created in 1915 to promote industry, government, and academic coordination of war projects.  As a civilian facility, its initial mission was to conduct research to enable successful fighter planes for WWI.  Over the years the focus of the laboratory evolved as needs of the nation evolved during WWII and during the cold war, leading to launch of manned space craft and manned landings on the moon.  The number of engineers, mathematicians, and technical support required to accomplish its missions was huge.  Unlike some aspects of the “military industrial complex”, employment levels at Langley did not waver substantially between wars.  Until the 1960s, most calculations were done manually with the support of mechanical calculators and the volume of this work was staggering—both theoretical and experimental work created large reams of data that had to be processed and analyzed.   Langley recruited hundreds of women as “human calculators” (steps below “mathematician”).  In parallel, it recruited hundreds of men into mathematician, scientist, and engineering positions. 

The gender barrier was significant regardless of race.  While all the women recruited as “computers” had BA/BS degrees in mathematics, and often physical sciences as well, they were relegated to a role and job title beneath men hired with similar credentials as “mathematician” or “scientist” or “engineer”.  This barrier eventually fell (over decades…) as the “computers” became more incorporated directly into research groups (like Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson), their male team members began to include their names on technical papers, and their value was recognized by their supervisors.  Mary Jackson’s supervisor recognized her talent and encouraged her to take the required courses to be promoted to engineer.   Katherine Johnson’s on-going request to be included in technical group meetings including her continuing questioning of the “well women are not invited” eventually was successful and she was included in these discussions.  When a collaborator was about to leave Langley to relocate to Houston, where the new space team would be centered in the new NASA organization, he told his boss to have Katherine write up their work as it was mostly hers anyway.  Thus Katherine’s paper became the first technical report solely authored by a woman. 

The race barrier was also very significant.  There were segregated “computer” groups—the West Computing Group being all black, supervised by a white woman while the East Computing Group was all white.  Restrooms and lunch tables allowed the West Computing Group were based on their race.  Only after eight years of a “temporary” assignment as Supervisor of the West Computing Group was Dorothy Vaughan, a talented mathematician regularly requested by research groups for her computing prowess and understanding of the work, actually promoted to this position, making her the first black person promoted to a supervisory position.  A quiet protest was fought for several years by a black computer who kept removing the “black table” sign from the cafeteria table they were assigned.  Eventually the sign was no longer replaced.  Katherine Johnson simply ignored the “white only” restroom restrictions as there weren’t “black” restrooms in her building.  Mary Jackson was promoted to the engineer title after a lengthy struggle to get special dispensation from the local school board to attend required courses offered on behalf of Langley at the local (white) high school. 

Shetterly also discusses the degree and impact of segregation in schools during this period and the journey towards integration.  Education at all levels was completely segregated by race.  Graduate programs were generally not available to blacks.  Johnson and Vaughan were both encouraged to attend graduate school but neither fully pursued graduate programs for various reasons.  Johnson benefited from an undergraduate professor who designed graduate level courses for the mathematical prodigy (she graduated from college at age 18) which eventually led her to become a primary player in the determination of flight trajectories for various space missions.  Her black professor, despite tremendous capabilities demonstrated while pursuing his PhD in mathematics, only the third ever granted to a black person, could only find employment at West Virginia College, a historically black college.  After the Brown v Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, some Virginia public schools were actually closed to all during the period 1956-1958 to prevent integration.    

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal

Heaven’s Ditch:  God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal

By Jack Kelly

Published 2016

Read May 2020

This reader has spent 30+ years living in western New York and has biked and walked along the Erie canal on a regular so anticipated this book would be an interesting read to learn more about the canal’s history.  It certainly fulfilled that promise and much more. 

Pursuing a vision to connect the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers near Albany, NY with Lake Erie, 360 miles away making it the longest canal in the world was remarkable.   Knowing that the canal would have major impact on the land between the two waters, but as importantly anticipating that the canal would have major impact on the new nation itself was enough to fuel DeWitt Clinton’s drive to build the canal, even if the US government wasn’t willing to do so.  What wasn’t known well then was that the 360 mile canal would also have to enable lifting boats 600 feet along their journey and that technologies required to allow the canal to survive winters weren’t even available in the country much less the region.  Engineers didn’t have the ready knowledge or experience to accomplish this huge task but an amazing can-do spirit meant the project was funded by the state after being refused federal funds and neatly accomplished in 8 years (1817-1825).  A course was plotted through the wilds of central and western New York, water sources were found to power the huge number of locks, and the backs of locals and Irish immigrants hand-dug the canal, later supported by tools devised by self-taught engineers.  Another self-taught engineer, Canvass White, leveraged a technology he saw in the UK to use a hydraulic cement, impermeable to water, as mortar for stones vs the original plan of using timbers (with an expected short life) to build the 83 locks.  His discovery of a source of the required limestone near Syracuse, NY, and his experiments in how to make the cement allowed the locks and arches to survive decades longer than timbers could have.  Many of these structures are still visible and/or in use.    

Kelly’s telling of the building of the canal covers the “Heaven’s Ditch” part of the title.  His parallel documentation of the cultural changes in the area covers the other parts.  Another extraordinary piece of history occurred during this same period and in this same part of the country—“The Second Great Awakening”.  In many respects this aspect of the book is larger in depth and scope than the telling of the building of the canal, covering a larger time period and geographical setting.   Kelly gives the story of three people who had huge impact on the area and beyond:  Charles Finney—“The Great Evangelist”, William Miller—who predicted (incorrectly) the date of the second coming, and Joseph Smith, Jr—who founded the religion that becomes the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Each of these men provided their followers something beyond what was available in the traditional church settings of the day. 

Kelly recounts Finney’s story.  After various jobs and approaches to education, he becomes a successful revivalist.  His revivals were often held when farmers weren’t toiling in their fields allowing entire families to trek to the revival site.  The events provided stimulating, actionable words vs the dry oratory participants heard in their traditional churches.  Kelly details major revivals held in Rochester, NY. Finney stirred abolitionist fervor that spread in the area and was carried west on the canal. 

Kelly also discusses William Miller, another influential religious leader at that time.  After various struggles with his faith, wavering between the Baptist Church and Deism, he returned with vigor to the Baptist Church.  After substantial consideration of the scriptures, he calculated the date of the second coming of Christ.  He eventually revealed this and preached about this date which would be sometime in 1843 or 1844.     Although “The Great Disappointment” arrived when expectations were not met, some of his followers reconsidered his teachings and begat the Seventh Day Adventist church that continues today. 

The impact of Joseph Smith, Jr. is more widely known.  His family left financial ruin in Vermont to settle in an area of western New York that would become Palmyra, NY and that was near the coming canal. He and family members worked on the canal as it was being dug there.  Kelly provides substantial detail regarding Smith’s humble beginning, his considerations of various religious practices, how the he engaged others to believe he had received the golden plates (although no one else ever saw them) in a clearing in a nearby woods, and how he alone was able to translate and record the history of the world that was revealed to him via these plates and later via direct revelation.  Heaven’s Ditch follows his history west to Illinois and Missouri to his eventual death and describes the others he commissions as elders, including Brigham Young.  Interesting to this reader is a review about Kelly’s book in the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters, a non-profit focused on production and criticism of Mormon literature.  The reviewer has this to say: “Every Seventh-day Adventist and Mormon certainly should read this fine book, as it will inform and illuminate.”  (1)  This reader also found very interesting that as Joseph’s power over his community rose, he followed a path common to some other men rising in power in religion, business, or government—the need to fulfill a growing sexual appetite.  His approach to reconcile this passion with his church eventually led to the acceptability of having multiple “spiritual wives”.  The author lays interesting ground for consideration for readers regarding how other religions a initiate and grow. 

The fourth person he discusses in some detail is William Morgan, who wrote an exposé of the Freemason fraternal organization that played a large role in society of that time.  He is the “murder” part of the title—-he went missing shortly before his book was published and his fate was never learned although many theories were lightly considered by various investigations. 

Although Kelly’s book title likely will capture readership of those interested in the engineering feat of the Erie Canal, readers will learn at least as much about the “Second Awakening” in the United States and the role some prominent western New Yorkers played in this important aspect of US history.  Kelly’s mission-free style informs and keeps the reader well engaged.

(1) http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/reviews/older-reviews/kelly-heavens-ditch-god-gold-and-murder-on-the-erie-canal-reviewed-by-gary-mccary/

The Last Hundred Year Trilogy—A Family Farm Saga from Jane Smiley

The Last Hundred Year Trilogy

Some Luck

Published 2014; Read June 2016

Early Alert

Published 2015; Read July 2016

Golden Age

Published 2015; Read Aug 2016

By Jane Smiley

When the first book of the trilogy was published, the following two were written and in the process of publication as well.  The series literally covers 100 years starting in 1920 and ending in 2020.  Each chapter of each book is entitled the year the actions in the chapter occur.

If you like family sagas especially those that start with rural or farming life this is a great set of books for you.  This reader plowed through them in pretty quick order (limited in part by availability of library copies!) and wasn’t disappointed.  This reader found the first book, Some Luck, to be the strongest.  Since it is focus on the first generation of the Walter and Rosanna Langdon family, it can spend more time with this set of characters and the primary setting in Iowa.  As the series progresses and the Langdon children and their cousins take a variety of paths off the farm, marry, have their own children and grandchildren,  there is progressively much more to manage and single year chapters and reasonable book lengths mean less focus on any single character. 

Jane Smiley has written a number of books both for adults and young people, short stories, books about writing, a book about Dickens, and has taught writing for a number of years so she knows the writing business well.  She can get into the mind of a two year old child, a young farm wife about to manage giving birth on her own, or a horse (Horse Heaven) with equal engaging believability.  Hopefully she will continue delivering.

Everybody’s Fool and Chances Are….Two More Richard Russo Hits

Everybody’s Fool

Published 2016

Read June 2016

Chances Are…

Published 2019

Read June 2020

By Richard Russo

A look at the published/read information shows that this reader reads Russo’s new novels fairly shortly after their publication.  This has been true since this reader read Empire Falls in 2001 and promptly read his two preceding books.  This reader also read his memoir Elsewhere:  A Memoir which nicely confirms that Russo writes what he knows:  life growing up in central upstate New York after industry had left or was leaving and the trials and tribulations of being a teacher at a small college.

Everybody’s Fool is a sequel to Nobody’s FoolNobody’s Fool  was made into a movie starting Paul Newman (who also showed up in a mini-series version of Empire Falls along with his wife Joanne Woodward).   Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Newman’s character) returns in Everybody’s Fool along with other characters from the first book, all older and not necessarily any wiser.   There is a little bit of mystery and a lot of looking at this collection of flawed but sometimes loveable characters as they make their way through a Memorial Day weekend in their small townChances Are… is somewhat of a change of pace for Russo.  It’s neither set in a somewhat decaying town in central upstate New York nor at a small college nor does it involve teachers.  But it does involve men who are Russo’s approximate age so Russo once again writes what he knows.  Here three 66-year old men, who worked together in a kitchen at a small liberal arts college they attended, have gathered for a weekend at the same summer place where they were last together when celebrating college graduation.  There is a mystery again which is more predominant than usual for Russo novels (did his agent or editor indicate this was needed for sales?) this time about a female classmate who was also at that post-graduation gathering and who went missing thereafter.  All the guys had dreamed about Jacey as their girlfriend but she was always just a friend and it was clear that’s all there would be as she was engaged  to be married to someone none of them liked—someone in Jacey’s social stratum which was above theirs.  The chapters alternate between Teddy and Lincoln, two of the guys, and give both their pre-and post-college stories and their present experiences during this weird weekend.  The third character, Mickey, finally has a voice near the end of the book.  Mickey had drawn a small draft lottery number and went to Canada to avoid the draft, despite being conflicted about the decision.  Teddy and Lincoln had drawn higher numbers and avoided the Vietnam experience.  During the course of the weekend, the guys actually spend fairly limited time together and talk to each other even less (remember they are 66 year old men of an era and background that condoned not sharing with other

The Girl with Seven Names—The Reality of Growing up in North Korea and Escaping from It

The Girl with Seven Names

By  Lee Hyeonseo

With David John

Published 2015

Read April 2018

This is one of several books published in 2015 by defectors from North Korea.  It is the only one read by this reader who can’t compare it with the other books.  However this reader can certainly recommend it for a look at life in North Korea and the daunting challenges facing those who wish to leave North Korea and live peacefully in South Korea or elsewhere.

The book has three sections:  “the Greatest Nation on Earth”, “To the Heart of the Dragon”, and “Journey into Darkness”.  The first section describes the author’s childhood including descriptions of the education children received to appropriately revere Kim Il-Sung “The Great Founder” and his son Kim Jong-il “The Great Leader” as well as “The Greatest Nation on Earth”.  All families had portraits of these men hung prominently in their homes and protected them carefully.  Her father focused on bringing the portraits to safety when their house was on fire, choosing this task above saving other household items.  The process of informing on other children for sins against the state was a regular part of the school week.   The second section describes her escape to China, her life there as an illegal alien (China pursues and expels North Koreans), journey to South Korea and her difficulties adjusting to life there.  In includes her amazement and initial disbelief in learning that many teachings of her childhood were blatant lies.  The last section describes her dramatic efforts to rescue her mother and brother from North Korea and get them to South Korea via Laos.  The difficulties she encountered and managed to overcome to accomplish this are simply astonishing.  While she remains grateful to be out of the harshness and constraints of North Korea, she also describes her longing to be able to return to her homeland, likely a universal feeling of many who have left their homeland.

The author gave a Ted Talk in February 2013 which has been viewed by millions on You Tube.  While this 13 minute talk is interesting, this reader recommends reading this book to get a more in-depth look at her extraordinary life and what she is teaching us regarding the realities of North Korea. 

The Housekeeper and the Professor—People and Numbers

The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa

Published 2009

Read Feb 2018

It is highly likely that this is the only book this reader has read that was reviewed by a professor of mathematics and that the review was published in a peer-reviewed mathematics journal (Notices of the AMS, Volume 57, number 5 May 2010 pages 635-636). 

Why would a mathematics professor review a book of fiction that was a best-selling novel in Japan before being translated into English and also made into a Japanese film, TV show, a radio show, and a comic book?  The reason is that the main character is a former professor of mathematics who suffered a traumatic brain injury leaving him with an inability to remember anything that has happened longer ago that about 80 minutes and the title’s housekeeper title develops a certain kind of love of numbers through the characters’ association. 

This injury means he had to leave teaching and research and that his current life is fraught with difficulties.  Post-it notes pinned to his clothes help him remind him of essential information.  He lives in a small house on the property of his sister-in-law with whom he has limited interaction.  The sister-in-law hires a housekeeper to come to the professor’s house to clean and cook for him.  The housekeeper has her own life challenges as she is a single (never married) mother with a son of ten.  

The professor’s field of research was number theory and he remains fascinated with numbers and likely relates to them better than with others, especially now that he lives a very solitary life.  Each day the professor and the housekeeper go through a ritual.  He identifies her with a post-it on his clothes but since he doesn’t really remember her, he needs to relearn various numbers about her including shoe size, her age, etc. 

Over time he learns that she has a son to whom she returns only after he has finished his evening meal and she has cleaned up the kitchen.  He insists the boy come to the house after school instead.  The story describes the building of this trio’s relationship which includes the housekeeper and the boy discovering interest in numbers as well.  The other interest they share is baseball.  The professor’s favorite team is the Tigers, which is local, and his favorite player is Enatsu, an actual pitcher for the real Tigers team.  However, he retired in 1984, after the professor’s accident, but 17 years in the past.  The housekeeper and her son take the professor to a baseball game and try hard to keep the retirement of Enatsu a secret so he won’t be disappointed.

Reading the Japanese professor’s review in the math journal was very interesting for this reader.  He could comment on the cultural aspects (the unusualness of both hiring a housekeeper and single motherhood), the believability of the professor and especially his focus on numbers (not typical but not without precedent in this reviewer’s life), and the story of Enatsu.  In addition, this review provided the information at the beginning of this essay regarding the popularity of the book and the various media formats into which it has been adapted.  The reviewer also indicated that the translation into English is good.

This reader very much enjoyed the discussions of numbers and various math theories.  However, it isn’t necessary to know anything about math to enjoy this book.  As the math professor indicates in his review, there is little drama in the book.  However, there often isn’t substantial drama in the lives of many who live rich lives.  The focus of the novel is on the relationship that develops between the professor, the housekeeper, and her son and later includes discussion of the relationship between the professor and his sister-in-law.  

This reader highly recommends this short (192 pages) book that provides a quiet look at the impact unexpected relationships can have on people’s lives. 

The Weight of Ink–Historical Fiction Meets Modern Historians

The Weight of Ink

By Rachel Kadish

Published 2017

Read June 2020

This book was recommended to our book discussion group as a highly worthy read.  Its length (592 pages) led to its timing as the first book of the fall season giving us the summer to read it.  This reader consumed it in fairly short order while listening to it on a 24 hour road trip plus some.    As is increasingly popular, the novel has two parallel sets of inerconnected stories.  In this case the settings for each are in the London area, but separated by time—about 400 years. 

One set of sections is set in 2000.   Professor Helen Watt, a professor of history at a London university, has hired Aaron Levey, an American graduate history student at her university, to help her assess a trove of documents found under the staircase of a house undergoing renovation.  She has three days to get a sense of their historical significance to make a recommendation regarding their acquisition by her university before an outside appraiser is engaged.  Helen is about to reach mandatory retirement age and would love to have a final positive bang for her academic career which has felt stifled by the men in her department. Aaron is struggling with his thesis topic and welcomes a short break from it, although working with Helen isn’t easy either.  The papers they are reviewing are from the 1650’s and 1660’s from the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who had come from Amsterdam to London to join fellow members of the Amsterdam Portuguese Inquisition refugee community who had since migrated to London and were generally concealing their religion to stay out of harms way.  The rabbi had been blinded during the Inquisition so required a scribe to read and write for him.  These documents were, at least in part, in this scribe’s handwriting.  Shortly before their three days end, Helen and Aaron make the discovery that the scribe is a woman, a surprising finding as women weren’t generally sufficiently educated to serve in such a position, and even if they were, it wasn’t considered appropriate.

The other set of sections is set during the time of the writing of the documents Helen and Aaron are reviewing and provide the story of the documents and their authors.  We learn that two children of the Amerstam refugees had studied with Rabbi HaCoen Mendes in Amsterdam before he left for London.  After their parents were lost in a fire, the siblings were sent to live with the rabbi in London.  The brother left the home and refused the rabbi’s request to be his scribe.  Ester Velasquez, the sister, was relieved of her household duties to become his scribe, at least temporarily.  Rabbi Mendes manages to delay plans for Amsterdam to replace Ester as scribe (she should, of course, marry and have a family—the only option for women besides service in others’ households).  

So over the course of 592 pages readers spend time in 2000 and the 1660’s. The story set in 2000 progresses the course of study of the documents by Helen and Aaron and their academic competitors after the university’s acquisition of the documents (Aaron continues working with Helen after that three day assessment period).  Who will publish what first?  It gives a picture of research on this kind of document—where and how review can occur, what care of the documents is required, information about the ink in the documents and how that complicates research, and what the research can and can’t reveal.    It includes Helen’s struggles with the department chair regarding her continued access to the documents following her required retirement and her battles with Parkinson’s disease which complicates her study.  This section also dips into Helen’s past to give us the backstory that led her to focus on Jewish history.  We get background on Aaron, his struggles both professional and personal and his evolving perception of Helen.  The story set in the 1660’s progresses the story of Ester as scribe for Rabbi Mendes, his household, who provides financial support, and Ester’s life.   Interestingly, this is the time of the Black Plague in Europe and how Ester experiences it likely falls on readers’ ears differently if they are reading this book during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020 vs other times. 

 The stories of Helen and Ester compare and contrast the possible paths in their respective times for women with clear, quick minds if their inclination or choice isn’t fixed upon marriage.   Supporting characters Aaron Levy and Mary, another member of the London Jewish community who engages Ester as a companion so she can socialize with London society, provide additional stories highlighting the conventions of dating, courtship, and marriage in the two periods.

This novel is classified on this website as Historical Fiction.  Like other well-written Historical Fiction, this novel has its story interacting in an appropriately consistent manner with actual history.  In this case the real historical characters are the famous Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and Baruck Spinoza, both members of the Amsterdam refugee community of the Spanish/Portugues Inquisition.  Menassah was on a mission to populate England with Jews to enable the coming of the Messiah (which apparently was anticipated by Christian scholars at the time too).  Spinoza was a member of the Amsterdam refugee community who was excommunicated by the rabbis when he was only 23 as his philosophies were contrary to the accepted teachings of the times.  Some of the documents Helen and Aaron study are letters between Menasseh and Rabbi Mendes.  Some of the documents are letters between Spinoza and a little known scholar. 

Although there were sections that could have been more concise without losing any substance or feeling, this reader greatly enjoyed this book.  The modern characters were certainly believable.  One of the points of the book was to create Ester’s character to demonstrate what she could offer if she could exist.  Certainly her courage and desires were believable.  The historical and philosophy information/lessons were appreciated by this reader and well woven into the story.  Similarly the theme of the constraints on women’s role in society over time was not heavy handed.    That historians can’t find the whole story despite their best efforts is an interesting assertion the author make which is certainly true in this case.

This book can be enjoyed over a short period of time—like a 24 hour road trip—or at a more leisurely pace.  This reader anticipates enjoying re-reading at least parts before the book discussion, especially as it’s not for several months!

Long Bright River—Procedural and Family Saga

Long Bright River

By Liz Moore

Published 2020

Read June 2020

Moore opens this book with a chapter called “List” which is simply that—a list of 52 people that ends with ”Our father. Our mother.”  The reader figures out quickly this is a list of people who have died of an overdose of an opioid—synthetic or heroin—and that many of the names in the list are very familiar to (or are family of) the narrator.   This chapter is nearly identically repeated as the next to last chapter.  In between are chapters titled “Then” and “Now”.   This rather long (492pages) book needs, or at least takes, a lot of pages to cover both the police procedural story that’s in the present and the family story that wraps around the characters and provides context for the present.  

As the “Now” opens, cop Mickey has found a dead woman while on duty and is relieved it’s not her sister Kacey who she hasn’t seen for a few months.  Kacey is an addict in the neighborhood in which the girls grew up and which Mickey currently patrols.  Like many others in the neighborhood, Kacey lives in various abandoned buildings in the area and supports her habit through prostitution.   Mickey isn’t happy that the death of this unidentified woman isn’t being investigated with vigor.  Over time, additional women are found dead and it’s clear a serial killer is in operating in the area. 

The “Then” entries amplify the girls’ diverging stories.  Mickey Fitzgerald and Kacey are two sisters who grew up in the Kennsington neighborhood of Philadelphia  with their grandmother, Gee,  after their mother dies of an overdose and their father has disappeared, presumably also dead (the opening “list” includes “our father”).    Mickey is the older sister and was generally introverted in high school. Although she showed promise for college education, Gee wouldn’t support application for financial aid and strongly discouraged Mickey from attending to avoid the realization that she wasn’t one of “them”, those in economic strata above theirs.   Mickey’s mentor in a community police program suggested law enforcement for a job/career.  She follows this guidance and becomes a beat cop in the Kennsington neighborhood, although her earnings allow her to move into a better area.  Younger sister Kacey was more outgoing which morphs into “wild”. She gets into drugs early, starts heroin by age 16, is kicked out of the house by Gee shortly thereafter and essentially begins a life on the streets.     Mickey chooses to stay in the Kennington assignment, in part, to be able to keep a watch on Kacey.

Moore uses her research of this real area to paint a rather dark picture of life of many in the neighborhood – living in various abandoned buildings in the once prosperous industrial area, trying to get clean but regularly failing, trying to manage their habit with various forms of opiates at various prices, turning tricks to get their fixes, trying to look out for each other but being limited in their capacity to do so when the next fix becomes mandatory. 

Mickey has avoided this life but is surrounded by it daily and her life is far from easy. She is a single mother.   Her job had allowed her to buy a small house she cherished but sold to move into a small apartment when her son’s father cut off child support which paid for his good preschool and daycare situation.  She seems to have few, if any, friends.   She engages her previous police partner, currently on medical disability, to help her with her off-the-books investigation, but the relationship is strained.  She is hiding her son from his delinquent father.  She has limited relationship with her family.  In a “Then” section, she attends Thanksgiving at a cousin’s for the first time in many years, without prior announcement, and is more tolerated than welcomed.  She’s being investigated at work for being away from the job several times without explanation (she was doing her own personal investigation of Kacey and the serial killer).  She’s not connecting well with her boss.  Her babysitter is unreliable.  Her hours are increasingly irregular as she pursues looking for Kacey.  Nothing is going very well for her.  But her situation is clearly better than Kacey’s.

The structure and style of the book kept this reader involved in this dark drama.  There are a number of plot twists that keep the reader a little off-balance which maintains the engagement.  Moore handles action well.  Simultaneously Moore has the reader considering this complex family and trying, like Mickey, to understand why the sisters’ paths are so divergent.  Mickey reminds Kacey that they had essentially the same childhood as their age difference is only two years—what led to the different choices they made?   Moore doesn’t supply the answer for these sisters or for others in their situation.   While the main mysteries are resolved, the ending leaves all of the characters in very uncertain but very real situations which keep the book firmly rooted in reality.  Job well done, Liz Moore.