Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.
As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?
Shocklee (The Women of Rose Hill) grapples with the legacy of slavery in this rousing yet uneven inspirational romance. Sixteen-year-old Rena Leland's comfortable life as the daughter of a prominent banker in Nashville is uprooted by the stock market crash of 1929. Seven years later, with her father suffering from alcoholism and her mother toiling in a sewing shop, Rena accepts a job with Roosevelt's Federal Writers Project. She's assigned to interview and transcribe the stories of former slaves, and her first encounter is with 101-year-old Frankie Washington, a resident of Hell's Half Acre, one of Nashville's poorest neighborhoods. The narrative switches between the 1930s and Frankie's account of her life in 1842, when she endured horrendous acts of cruelty and dehumanization. Rena and Frankie form a strong bond that spans generational, racial, and socioeconomic divides until a twist of fate (or, as Frankie would view it, divine intervention) tests their friendship after Rena learns their two families may be intimately connected. While Rena's evolution is inspiring, Frankie's heart-wrenching sections feature an awkward balance of introspection and colloquialisms that often distracts from the narrative. Shocklee elevates the redemptive power of remorse and the grace of forgiveness in this moving saga.