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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who Is Stagger Lee?

I am usually very pleased by a book that inspires me to further research.  I recently came across an exception to this rule.

Leavin' Trunk Blues is the second  mystery in which the detective is blues historian Nick Travers.  I absolutely loved the first, Crossroad Blues, in which Travers investigates the death of  musical prodigy Robert Johnson.

In this book, there is a character known as Stagger Lee.  Nick Travers, doubts his existence because Stagger Lee is an urban legend.  Neither Travers nor the author, Ace Atkins, reveals how or why Stagger Lee became a legend, or what role the legend plays in African American culture.

What he does give us seemed to me a fairly disappointing standard sort of mystery. Travers investigates on behalf of a blues performer who has spent forty years in prison for a crime she hadn't committed.  It's a sleazy case involving predictable motivations.  If it weren't for that tantalizing reference to Stagger Lee as a legend, I wouldn't have cared about any of it. Stagger Lee is the only mystery that I wanted this book to solve.

So let's pull the curtain back and discover a bit about this Stagger Lee figure.  It turns out that there's a Google site devoted to him created by librarian James P. Hauser.  It can be found at:

The Stagger Lee Files

 Hauser reveals an evolution of the Stagger Lee legend from badass to freedom fighter in the context of the civil rights movement.  He traces this change back to a song from the 1950's.   In current political discourse, the same figure may be labeled a terrorist or a freedom fighter.  The distinction is quite subjective.  For me, the difference between them resides in the targets of their actions.  Freedom fighters target an unjust government and its institutions.  Terrorists usually take aim at people who are innocent bystanders.  I don't feel I know enough about the history of how Stagger Lee has been portrayed since the 1950's to be able to categorize him.

Regardless of  how we think about this legend, Stagger Lee's  roots are in  blues music where he is always an outlaw, always liminal .  Liminality is an anthropological term invented in order to discuss individuals who exist outside the bounds of society. If  Ace Atkins had chosen to truly address the Stagger Lee legend through  Leavin' Trunk Blues, it might have been a more compelling novel with greater depth.



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Revelations About Japanese American Internment

  My latest review for The Bookplex is a historical novel that deals with the impact of internment on two young Japanese Americans and their families.

                                                     The 2012 Golden Mask Award 
                                                     for best indie book I read this year                         
Although I have read a number of novels dealing with Japanese American internment during World War II, Eyes Behind Belligerence seems the most realistic description of the day to day experience of living in the camps.  According to the author’s blog post on Goodreads, she interviewed a number of Japanese American internees. (See Kollenborn's Blog Post) These first- hand accounts are undoubtedly the source of her work’s authenticity.  I also learned about events and people that I hadn’t previously encountered in other reading.  One example is the brief appearance of Ralph Lazo in Eyes Behind Belligerence.  Ralph Lazo isn’t a fictional character.  He is a real 16 year old Mexican-Irish American who accompanied his Japanese American friends to Manzanar  internment camp, and remained there until 1944 when he was drafted to serve in World War II.  His story is quite an extraordinary one, and I might never have discovered him without Kollenborn’s book. 

Of the two central characters, I found Russell Hamaguchi the most sympathetic.  It’s true that he was impulsive as a teenager, but he also had so much heart and integrity.  He cared about people even when they weren’t like him.  This is what allowed him to be a loyal friend to the other protagonist, Jim Yoshimura.   I understood why Jim acted and believed as he did on an intellectual level, but it was difficult to sympathize with him when he repeatedly hurt those who cared about him most.  I feel that Jim’s decisions delayed his maturation.  He remained an adolescent far longer than Russell.

The plot was well-paced for the most part, though there was a slow section when nothing much seemed to be happening.  I realized that this was an accurate portrayal of how the characters’ lives had been placed on hold due to the internment, so I was patient through that portion. 

My only criticism is that there were many un-translated Japanese words.  I could approximate the connotation of some of these words through context, but I would have preferred a more extensive glossary containing all these words and phrases.

I feel that this is an important book for readers who want to understand Japanese Americans.  The descendants of Japanese Americans who were internees have grown up with parents and/or grandparents who were scarred by this tragedy.  We can’t underestimate the impact of these events on them and their community. 


There were a couple of  topics related to this book that I felt the need to research.  

When Russell became involved in a youth gang at Manzanar, I wanted to know more.  I have to confess that I found very little online beyond brief mentions.  There was one mention in an oral history interview, and a couple of others  relegated to footnotes in doctoral dissertations.  I also noted that subversive gangs in Japanese American internment camps was an issue subject to investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.   There were no web pages dealing with the West Side Story type of youth gang at Manzanar or any other Japanese American internment camp.

For further details about the HUAC investigation see:

House Un-American Activities Investigation

I had better success in finding information about Ralph Lazo. It is important to point out that Ralph had the permission and blessing of his parents when he got on the train to Manzanar.  Ralph had encountered discrimination against Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles.  This caused him to identify with Japanese Americans when they were the subject of  persecution by the American government.  There was a short film made by Nekkei for Civil Rights and Redress  about Ralph released in 2004 called Stand Up For Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story .

For more on the web  about Ralph Lazo see:

Ralph Lazo in his own words

NCRR Page on Ralph Lazo

For more about the film see:

Stand Up For Justice

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Riveting Novel About War and Prejudice

The second review that I wrote for The Bookplex deals with a  slice of  Florida history and provocative themes.  It also allowed me to discover an amazing woman from history through research.


This is a well-written novel dealing with the residents of a small Florida town before, during and after World War I.  It’s a moving portrayal of the period with enough detail to convey authenticity.  It focuses on important themes such as prejudice, the realities of war and the cultural beliefs surrounding it.  The characters are well-drawn.  Even the villain has dimension since we learn something of his background.  David Cooper, the central character, is well-intentioned and heroic. He isn’t perfect by any means. He makes mistakes due to misperceptions, but he is faithful to his principles and values. I was impressed when he taught his wife, Sara, to drive a truck. There can’t have been too many American women driving trucks in 1917. In fact, I discovered in an online search that the first American woman to receive a commercial license to drive a truck was Lillie Elizabeth McGee Drennan in 1929. David's willingness to instruct Sara, so that she wouldn’t be isolated on their farm while he was “Over There” in Europe, speaks well for their relationship. I enjoyed Sara’s gumption.  Sara’s father, David and Sara’s African-American neighbors and David’s German immigrant employer are all notable and sympathetic characters.  The plot was dramatic, moving and suspenseful—particularly toward the end.  I would recommend Fire Angels as a book club selection because it provides a number of substantial topics for discussion.

Here's some more information about my research subject:

The story of Lillie Elizabeth McGee Drennan (1897-1974) is a fascinating one.  She was not only the first licensed female truck driver in the United States, she was also the first American woman to own and run a trucking firm.  Lillie had originally been a telephone operator, but she lost most of her hearing due to scarlet fever. This caused her to face discrimination.  When she applied for a truck license, the Railroad Commission, which regulated trucking at the time, was reluctant to give her one because they believed that her deafness would make her an unsafe driver.  Lillie demanded the license based on her previous driving record.  She operated her trucking firm for 24 years.  During that period, she received safety awards from the Railroad Commission and later from the Texas Motor Transportation Association.

My source for these facts about Ms. Drennan is her profile on The Texas State Historical Association Website 

Please refer to that article for a more complete biography.