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DEBBIE NORRELL

There is nothing like going to my mailbox and finding a thick envelope. In most cases that envelope contains a review copy of a book. “The Blues Walked In” by Kathleen George actually arrived earlier this year but I didn’t get a chance to take a good look at it until now. The book was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in the spring. The novel explores Lena Horne’s Pittsburgh roots.

In 1936, life on the road for 19-year-old Lena Horne meant sleeping on the bus or in hotels for Blacks only. After a tour with Nobel Sissel’s orchestra, Lena is walking the last few blocks to her father’s hotel in the Hill District. She stops at a lemonade stand and meets a Lebanese American girl, Marie David. Marie loves movies and adores Lena. Their chance meeting sparks a relationship that intertwines their lives forever and is depicted in “The Blues Walked In.”

This fascinating account takes us back to when Horne meets Josiah Connor, a charismatic teenager who helps out at her father Teddy’s hotel. Connor often skips school, dreams of being a Hollywood director and has a crush on Horne. Lena, Marie and Josiah are linked by a determination to be somebody but issues of race, class, family and education threaten to disrupt their lives and the bonds between them. Teddy wants Lena to give up show business, but she is entranced by the culture of the Hill District. It’s a mecca for jazz singers and musicians and nightspots like the Crawford Grill, attracting crowds from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Duke Ellington adored her and Billy Strayhorn could not wait to meet her. Horne became all the rage in clubs and Hollywood for her beauty and almost-Whiteness. Once Horne left the Hill District, Marie and Josiah followed Lena’s career via movie magazines and the Pittsburgh Courier. After many years their lives collide when Josiah is arrested for the murder of a White man. Marie and Lena decide they must get Josiah out a prison at whatever personal cost.

The novel is an imaged life for Lena based on research by George. She said she is indebted to the books that detail her life and much of the information that she gathered about the Hill District of the 1930s and 1940s from the Pittsburgh Courier. This is a great summer read. I love reading books that feature Pittsburgh. I have a Teenie Harris print in my living room that features Lena Horne. This book is a great addition to my library.

George is the author of “The Johnstown Girls,” a novel about the famous Johnstown flood. She has also written seven mysteries set in Pittsburgh: A Measure of Blood; The Odds, which was nominated for the Edgar Award from the Mystery writers of America; Hideout; Afterimage; Fallen; and Taken. George is also the author of the short story collection “The Man in the Buick” and editor of another collection, “Pittsburgh Noir.” She is a professor of theater arts and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

(Email Debbie at debbienorrell@aol.com.)

 

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