Sherman Smith, Silencing the Blues Man
reviewed by Alison McBain
Silencing the Blues Man
Date: August 28, 2016
Paperback: 259 pages
ISBN: 9176372480; 9789176372487
I grew up in the Bay Area listening to the stories from my Japanese grandmother about our family’s internment during World War II. So it was with great interest that I picked up Sherman Smith’s book, Silencing the Blues Man. It is the third in a trilogy, following Poets Can’t Sing and The Honeysuckle Rose Hotel. The book focuses on the perspective of several characters who have survived the atrocities of WWII, and it explores how Americans from different races and cultural backgrounds cope with the aftermath of war once they return to civilian life.
The novel is set in San Francisco, beginning about a decade after the end of the war and concluding near the beginning of the Korean War. From after WWII, the characters started out as strangers to each other, but there are several things that bring them together. Aside from the female characters, they are all veterans, and they are all misfits in one way or another, whether it’s because they were different prior to the war or changed because of it.
They live in the Honeysuckle Rose Hotel, and they love music. Some of them are extremely talented musicians, maybe the best in the entire city. Some of them simply love to listen to the others play. But all of them are drawn together to support each other and make up an impromptu family, since most of them no longer have any family of their own.
Although there is a fair amount of backstory, the main meat of the book really starts on one exceptional night when the tensions between the main characters come to a head. Two of the band members have been called back to war, and this is their farewell night. They make music like they never have before, but the evening is not conflict-free, nor is the morning after. When events go really awry, only the strength of the characters and their connection to each other, shared through their music, will help see them through the tragedies brought to light during the day.
The story contains a diverse set of characters. Among them is blind Earl, who owns the hotel and is like a father-figure/hero to most of the tenants. Then there is Henry Akita, a Japanese-American man who has to face prejudice because of the anti-Japanese sentiment from the war but is accepted wholeheartedly into the group. And Les, a black man who plays trombone better than any other musician in the district.
Rosemary plays bass and cello, but she is jealous that she’ll never be the band leader even though she knows, in her own heart, that she’s the best player in the quintet. And Michael, who is callously nicknamed “Beauty” because he’s been ugly from birth. Another prominent character is Sy, an old Jewish man who lost his home when his wife died, but plays his violin like a gift.
Although there are many more individuals in the book, there isn’t space enough to list them all, the people portrayed are well-rounded, containing quirks and foibles enough to make them feel like more than stock characters.
There was some beautiful description throughout the narrative, and I always enjoy reading a novel that contains a lot of historical detail. The characters have multi-layered relationships that draw the reader in.
However, I felt the book wandered a bit at times in terms of pacing, leaving the reader to puzzle through the timeline of events. The narrative moves between past and present tense from section to section, but I wasn’t always sure about the reason behind the changing verb tense. Sometimes the past is spoken of in present tense and vice versa. And there are a few too many typos and grammatical errors, which pulled me out of the narrative.
I would have liked to see a stronger copy edit of the book before its publication. I feel there is a very engaging story in the book, but at times it is overshadowed by some very basic technical problems. Overall, the narrative was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, but I think if the book had gone through one more thorough edit, it would have helped me as a reader keep focused on the narrative rather than the details of composition.
But some of the writing is quite beautiful. For example:
She looked up from a sheet of music and smiled, not at an old man dressed in rags, who looked as if God might have forgotten him. No, she saw an old man, with special gifts, whom God was allowing to live just a little longer, his gifts too great to be taken away from this earth one second too early. She whispered one word. It was please, and was as welcoming as the best dawn he had ever risen to, and as hopeful as the first moment he had first seen his wife, the love of his life, and she him. (p. 55)
Until that moment Oscar’s poetry had always been separate from the music. Occasionally Mollie had dusted his words with her piano notes as soft as tiny raindrops on a forest floor. When Oscar first heard Sy’s violin he heard each note and knew if done right the poet in him would finally sing. (pp. 60-61)
I liked the characters and the struggle they go through, and the ending was bittersweet enough to complement the complex people found within the book. I found myself wondering what happens to the characters after the book ends; the outlook at the ending is positive, but not necessarily conclusive, nor does it have to be. I always enjoy stories that don’t spell out a “happy ever after,” but give the beginnings of one and allow the reader to fill in the gaps.
I haven’t read the first two books, so I’m looking forward to picking them up and seeing how the story begins.
Copyright © 2017 by Alison McBain