Title: In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (40s), Literary Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
Judy Reene Singer’s newest novel is a masterful story of the American experience. Between the past and present, between love and war, between the burdens of race and hope, a woman returns home to discover her father and a history she had never known…
Rachel Fleischer has good reasons not to be at her father’s deathbed. Foaling season is at hand and her horses are becoming restless and difficult. Her critical mother and grasping sister could certainly handle Marty Fleisher’s resistance better without her. But Malachi, her eighty-something horse manager—more father to her than Marty has ever been—convinces Rachel she will regret it if she doesn’t go.
When a stranger at her father’s funeral delivers an odd gift and an apology, Rachel finds herself drawn into the epic story of her father’s World War II experience, and the friendships, trauma, scandal, and betrayals that would scar the rest of his life—and cast a shadow across the entire family. As she struggles to make sense of his time as a Jewish sergeant in charge of a platoon of black soldiers in 1940s Alabama, she learns more than just his history. She begins to see how his hopes and disappointments mirror her own—and might finally give her the means to free herself of the past and choose a life waiting in the wings.
Alternating back and forth between the present and the early ’40s, In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer is a heartrending novel of complex and difficult relationships, race relations in the South and the lingering effects of wartime.
Rachel Fleischer’s relationships with her family are fraught with tension and the last place she wants to be is her father’s bedside as he refuses medical treatment for his failing heart. Marty Fleischer has always been a hypercritical, bitter, angry and deeply dissatisfied man whose hateful words continue to haunt her. At the urging of her farm manager and friend Malachi Charge, Rachel reluctantly goes to see her father one last time before his death. At his funeral, stranger Rowena Jackson presents them with a puzzling package from her father, Willie Jackson. Intrigued and wanting to understand a shocking allegation against her father, Rachel later goes to Boston to meet Willie where he recounts his tangled history with Marty.
Rachel’s dysfunctional childhood left an indelible mark on her and even as an adult, she cannot escape the legacy of her father’s painful words and lack of love. The owner of a horse farm, she lives with her longtime partner, David, and Malachi. Emotionally closed off and protective of her heart, Rachel is unable to fully commit to David and she soon becomes aware there are deep fractures in their relationship. Reluctant to discuss her fears and concerns with him, she ignores the growing distance between them and instead makes the decision to go to Boston to meet Willie.
Rachel knows absolutely nothing of Marty’s experiences in World War II and she is quite shocked to learn that he was in charge of a colored squadron in Alabama. Neither man lived in the South prior to their assignment at Gunter Field so they are ill prepared for the reality of segregation and the animosity directed towards Jews. Although both men are college educated, they are assigned to a squadron that cleans aircraft engines. Marty is a benevolent leader who looks out for the men serving under him although his efforts are not at all appreciated by the white soldiers on the base. Despite Willie’s best efforts to remain under the radar, he and Marty form a friendship of sorts that comes to an abrupt end following Marty’s well intentioned but misguided efforts to treat his men as equals. The two men eventually go back to their regular lives but neither of them are able to escape the tragedies of their shared history.
Based on the real life experiences of Judy Reene Singer and her father, In the Shadow of Alabama is a deeply affecting and rather poignant novel of reconciliation and healing. After learning of the events that shaped her father into the haunted man who raised her, Rachel has a better understanding of herself, her mother and her sister. With newfound awareness of the negative effects of her behavior, Rachel tries to repair her tattered relationships, but is it too late to salvage the one that means the most to her?