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According to the Collins Dictionary, if someone or somebody inspires you, they give you new ideas and a strong feeling of enthusiasm. Inspire comes from the Latin word that means to inflame. In my opinion, I feel that this word has been weakened and cheapened because it has been overused so many times. But after reading Janice S. Ellis From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search Of The American Dream, this common word has gained back its true value. This book opens up in strictly segregated Mississippi, between the towns Magnolia and Liberty and is an unapologetic, raw account of the life and obstacles of Janice S. Ellis as she tries to pave her way through the bubbling racial tensions of 1960s America.
“I have lived the chicken-egg conundrum. Which comes first? Am I black and then woman. Am I woman and then black?” Growing up in the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, we see the struggles Janice S. Ellis faced as a double minority, being the constant target of both racism and sexism. But despite her social disadvantages, Janice persevered, taking her rightful place at the University of Wisconsin, walking away proudly with a PhD and securing her very own glittering future.
Honestly, this is the hardest review I ever have written because there is so much to talk about. Let’s proceed. The book is neatly divided into two parts, both consisting of 5 chapters each. In the first part, Finding My Purpose, we learn at the start of the book, that the author was born and raised on her father’s farm. She explains through an array of selected childhood stories, the hardships of farm life and growing up in a large family, with little money to be shared. What I love about this part of the book is, not only does the reader gain an insight into the socially acceptable racial and sexist segregation at the time, but it also provides a vivid picture of what life was like living on the sidelines. Janice S. Ellis dreamed of a life outside the farm and wanted to venture out into the big wide world; she wanted to escape. “I dreamed to escape the loneliness, the isolation, the fear of living and dying all within a few miles of my father’s farm”. This poignant passage reminded me of the classic Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men. Themes of loneliness, escapism and the fight for the star-spangled American dream are explored throughout this book. The reader also learns about favouritism in the classroom. For example, Mrs Bolgers, her grade school teacher, shamefully criticised her students unless they showered her with gifts. And the author’s teenage crush on her high school teacher, Mr Nichols, could’ve ended in a scandal hadn’t it been for her maturity. So, you see, in this all-encompassing memoir, Janice S. Ellis, candidly explains the other hardships she also had to suffer. Good heavens! The poor woman even suffered abuse within her marriage and the drudgery of being a single parent. Talk about endurance and insane willpower!
Furthermore, this book is not just an autobiography. It is a thought-provoking history lesson. As a young mixed-raced British woman (my grandparents were part of the Windrush Generation), I have always taken an interest in learning about the racism and resistance that existed in my own country, as well as the United States. But there is a massive difference between reading a textbook and an eye-opening first-hand account, such as this one. From a first-person perspective, it is much more haunting. The author plunges into dark detail about growing up in fear, with murder just around the corner every day and the Ku Klux Klan “riding horses in their ghostly white robes”. Thankfully, there are some lighter moments dotted amongst the book, such as the childhood pranks, the good ole southern wise-cracks between siblings and the racy conversations involving relationships. This brings me to the second part of the book, Fulfilling My Purpose, which sees the definitive shift of the author as she soars to greater heights, whilst still tackling personal troubles. Janice S. Ellis established several self-made businesses, agencies and companies straight from university. Despite possessing this sharp acumen, she still found herself tangled in the thorny web of racism and sexism. She was knocked back. She was denied a promotion. And she stayed in a loveless marriage (until she divorced) because, unfortunately, this was expected of women at that time, especially if children were involved. At the end of the book, what left me absolutely speechless was the author’s unwavering resilience. Her spirits were never dampened! Janis S. Ellis has every single right to feel bitter, resentful and full of self-pity, but she handled this book with such poise and elegant grace. She has not chosen to use this book as an opportunity to lash out and beg the reader for sympathy (all though, she gains my full sympathy). She has written this book to educate, inform and to inspire the reader.
In terms of identifying the demographic audience, I feel this book appeals to anybody who wants to uncover the harsh truth behind 1960s America. Indeed, the colourful billboards and Hollywood films promoted a country of glamour, yet, it was anything but glamorous for minorities at the time. Minorities from that era will be able to relate to this book straight away. For other readers, it may be something of a bitter pill to swallow. And even though this book is set in the mid- 20th century, the message is still relevant today. Despite our progression as a more empathetic, socially accepting human race, we still have a long way to go. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, campaign against racism and violence, proving that discrimination is very much still alive.
Moving onto my dislikes. As much as I loved the childhood section, it was a little bit confusing at times due to the lack of chronological order. It jumped from the author’s teenage years to her pre-teenage years and to her adult days. The stories seemed to be selected at random, so it was quite difficult to follow the flow of the narrative. On top of that, another confusing factor was how her mother’s memories clashed with her own. The author’s voice seemed lost at times amongst her other siblings. Also, some parts of the book seemed to wander off-topic. For example, there was a lengthy section about the author’s love of flowers and a description of her garden. In addition, I only found two spelling mistakes – both the same word. All this book needs a little structural refinement. With the backing and touch of a professional editor, this beautifully poetic, articulate read would be perfect.
In conclusion, From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream, without question deserves a rating of 4 out of 4 stars . Even though there was some confusion with the order of the story, in the beginning, the message completely outweighs these minor faults. The story of Janice S. Ellis shows us regardless of your race, religion, gender or background, you can always triumph over life’s injustices. This book is tragic, shocking and simply inspiring; a true emotional rollercoaster.
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