Note: Jean K. Carney will discuss Blackbird Blues at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore (5751 S Woodlawn Avenue) on Thursday, January 16, at 6 p.m.
by Jean K. Carney
Bedazzled Ink Publishing
Reviewed by M.D. Walters
Like the Chicago River, Mary Kaye is trying to reverse the seemingly natural course of her life as an 18-year-old white Catholic girl in 1963. The loss of her unlikely mentor, however, has her both bailing and treading water in a city undergoing extensive social change.
Mary Kaye has lived the life of obedience expected of a good girl. Her future as a nun has already been decided. The oldest of six children, she must never disappoint or disrupt, and has to navigate carefully around her racist father and overwhelmed mother. She is smart, attractive and dependable—and often the caregiver and steward for her family. She’s perhaps a bit too organized, having checked off “have sex” from her senior year to-do list, and she’s now pregnant. Marrying the father, Tony, is an absurd idea to her. She’s keenly aware that she does not want to be a parent right now and she’s beginning to question the plan to give her spirit, life, and body to the church. She is uncertain how to go about escaping the life she once thought would bring happiness, but now dreads.
Mary Kaye’s beloved mentor—music teacher and social advocate Sister Michaeline—was recently killed in an auto accident. Michaeline introduced Mary Kaye to possibilities beyond the church and the upper-middle-class status of Cadillacs parked in her family’s driveway. In death, Michaeline foretells of the transition awaiting Mary Kaye as a nun. Both the reader and Mary Kaye learn of the Sister’s early life through her “Particular Examination Book,” her “record of wrong doing.” It has been carefully preserved and passed along to the teen by Lucius, a black jazz musician and Sister’s former lover.
Michaeline’s own past is one of tragedy and loss. It unfolds to Mary Kaye at a critical moment, offering up painful experiences as guideposts. Lucius is the first black man Mary Kaye has really encountered. Re-enacting much of his life with Sister Michealine, who was white, he becomes Mary Kaye’s voice coach, preparing her to pursue a singing career in the thriving Chicago jazz scene where skin color doesn’t matter. As trust and curiosity expand, Mary Kaye moves even further from the comfort of her cloistered life and goes with Lucius to meet his and the Sister’s troubled son in Joliet Prison.
Mary Kaye begins to see all this newness through a wider lens, all jumbled together with the church, civil rights, crime, abortion, and the freedom to explore the world unencumbered. The city’s jazz scene also calls her to a different life. Now, two options offer a path to enlightenment.
The author uses jazz and the blues as a foundation for all the personal stories Mary Kaye encounters. Created and nurtured by African Americans, it works well as the lives align with jazz’s evolution—from old and smooth, to new and cacophonous. Sister Michaeline’s story began amidst the city’s jazz scene. It’s where she met her husband, where Lucius spent much of his life, and where Mary Kaye now eagerly explores.
The author’s descriptions of how Mary Kaye dissects and absorbs what she hears in the music are particularly well done. She uses the jazz standard, “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” as a poignant call for the lonely characters who struggle with serious decisions that reshape their lives. Both Mary Kaye and Sister Michaeline are uncomfortable with the song’s lyric, “someone waits for me.” Perhaps the classic song, written in 1926, is symbolically calling for the listener to leave behind the cares and woes of the blackbird, which often is associated with sadness, temptation and doom. No matter the author’s intension, it works here.
“Blackbird Blues” is very much about loss, abandonment, and escape. For the Sister, it’s the death of one child and leaving her second as she vacates her past life and seeks God’s forgiveness. For Mary Kaye, it’s the moral uncertainty of choosing abortion and indeed, breaking away from all of society’s preconceived notions of a woman’s life choices. Even her traditionalist mother struggles with the expectations of her own generation. Overwhelmed with motherhood, she occasionally abandons her large and unruly brood, leaving them in Mary Kaye’s care. And Lucius aches for the loss of his confused and incarcerated son, abandoned by his mother as a child and once again with her death.
While Sister Michaeline’s story is especially compelling, Blackbird Blues is at its core a coming of age story about Mary Kaye, who must decide if she will choose a life more different than anyone, including herself, expected. The author deftly intertwines the lives of people who question their choices as the current sweeps them along. Some have been carried away by life’s definitions and some swim against the waves. We learn enough, however, to know that future jazz singer Mary Kaye is a woman for the new era and a pretty strong swimmer.
Blackbird Blues is available through the Bedazzled Ink Publishing website and most bookstores.
M.D. Walters is a marketing executive who divides her life between Chicago condo living and the suburbs of southern Illinois near St. Louis. Yes, there is something in Illinois beyond the city. Typically, she enjoys nonfiction on a varied range of people, events and times past. Her nightstand stack has expanded in recent years to include more fiction and particularly, historical fiction, which feeds her interest in history, good research, and thoughtful storytelling.