Monday, November 11, 2019

Josephine Baker's Last Dance

Title:  Josephine Baker's Last Dance
Author:  Sherry Jones
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501102443 / 978-1501102448

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Sleep?"

Favorite Quote:  "People don't come to the theater for truth. Her fans want the dream, the candy coating:  a face with no lines, a heart never broken, a life free of cares."

Josephine Baker's Last Dance is another entry into the cadre of books that presents fictionalized stories of historical figures. So, who was Josephine Baker? Josephine Baker was an American who made France her adopted home. She was a woman of color who found greater acceptance and tolerance in Europe than in the United States as a young woman and even later in life during the 1960s and 1970s. She was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. She was an entertainer. She was an agent of the French resistance during World War II. She was a civil rights activist.

Once again, fiction introduces me to a strong woman who I might never have met through the history books. I read the fiction and then go off to find out more about the history. However, I have high standards for the fiction as well. In this one, the lasting image of the book is not one of Josephine Baker, resistance fighter and activist but rather of Josephine Baker, a woman who survives a myriad of relationships.

The focal point of the book definitely is the men in Josephine Baker's life and the relationships - business and personal, loving and dysfunctional to the point of abusive. A lot of time is spent describing her childhood which ranged from neglectful to abusive. This felt like the most "real" part of the book as I feel for this little girl who wants her parent's love and is rejected time and time again. Her survival is a testament to courage and grit. Yet, the time developing this aspect of the story seems disproportionate to what comes after and how the rest of the story is told.

For example, the book tells briefly about the move La Sirene des Tropiques (The Siren of the Tropics) but focuses on one of her marriages which occurred at that time. It is only in my nonfiction research that I discover the significance of her role in that movie. The book makes it appear as a minor element of her career.

Similarly, later in life, Josephine Baker adopted children of different religions and ethnicities, hoping to create a "Rainbow Tribe" showing that we are one. The book speaks of the first adoption but focuses on her husband's anticipated and actual reaction more so than on her dream. Again, this aspect of her life is touched on and then passed over.

Along with the sometimes misplaced focus comes a feeling that I have throughout the book. It feels like I am being told a story. Something is missing in that the story never quite seems to come to life. It seems always from a distance. That is surprising as the woman and what I have read of her in historical sources seems larger than life with a vibrancy and spirit that should jump off the page. This fictional telling never quite gets there, but I am glad for the introduction it provides to this unique woman.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the author didn’t embody Baker. Maybe writing this was more her job. If you could summarize bakers life as if it were a cautionary tale. What would it be?