Sunday, May 17, 2015

Blanche Cleans Up (Blanche White #3) by Barbara Neely

Barbara Neely only wrote four Blanche books, but each one addresses issues central to life in America, and highlights the effect of these issues on the lives of America’s black folk. Blanche White, name notwithstanding, is a large woman with skin "on the extreme edge of blackness" who works as a "domestic." If you ever wanted to know what your maid or cook was thinking when they answered "Yes, Ma'm" with eyes cut off to the side, you're going to get your chance here. This woman is going to surprise and delight you. She has smarts and attitude to burn, and she has got three teens to take care of--so don't waste her time, sit down, and let her tell you how it plays.

Blanche struggles to navigate a dangerous world that doesn’t concern itself with her needs or those of her family. She is an amateur sleuth, which gives her plenty of latitude to indulge her curiosity about other people's lives. She is wily, but she is also strong and salty, blunt and clear. She is funny. She is an indispensable guide to looking at and discussing critical matters of concern to all Americans with regard to issues of race and class in our racially diverse neighborhoods. Neely chooses important social issues and has big black Blanche tell us all about sensitive issues she faces every day.

The Blanche novels are classified as mystery, but the murders are not the most interesting thing about this series. In this novel, what pins us to the page is what Blanche thinks about as she goes about her day as a cook in the household of a wealthy Boston couple, one of whom has put in his bid to be governor. There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the death of two young black men who used to work at the house, and then there is the death of a woman famous in her Roxbury neighborhood for knowing everything about everyone. The mystery "who-done-it" is a vehicle for Blanche to air her concerns.

Those concerns include protecting her family from the corrosion of bad influences, either from the sense of entitlement white and/or wealthy people have as a birthright, but also from the bottom-feeders in her own mostly black neighborhood. There is plenty of danger everywhere—from lead poisoning, for instance—and Blanche has got her hands full keeping body and soul together and caring for three teens. What struck me about the murders is that though two young black men and a black woman are killed, the official investigations never came close to discovering the culprit(s) and no one seemed to expect it. Blanche did her own investigations but never considered bringing what she learned to the police. Eventually the culprits were brought down by wrongdoing in another arena.

Blanche has a refreshing intellectual honesty. She feels jealousy, rage, hurt, but she works it out on the page, expressing feelings we've all had, and working it around until she admits she may have gone too far, or should be less possessive, or that she can't control what other people think or decide to do. She also expresses feelings of love, lust, and tenderness and can tell the difference between them.
“She’d stopped expecting life to be fair when she was about eight years old and had yet to be proven wrong. Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t try to even things out a bit.”
The Blanche books were originally published by Penguin Books in the 1990s, and are now being reissued in ebook format by Brash Books. The third book in the series is just out in Kindle format with the fourth due in August this year. Those who want to be reacquainted with the smart and salty tongue of Blanche in Boston need wait no longer but can start reading today.

Author Barbara Neely has a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Pittsburgh and set up a community-based housing program for female felons in an area of Pittsburgh called Shady Side. She knows all about poor choices and failures of will. She knows what despair looks like. Somehow she keeps her sense of humor, and shares it with us in the Blanche books.

Diana Reese writing for The Washington Post published a review of the Blanche books and portions of an interview with Barbara Neely in January 2015. And the U.S. Embassy in Prague conducted a video interview of Barbara Neely on the occasion of the books being translated into Czech by high schoolers. The covers of those translations are especially fabulous. That short video is posted below.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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