Special thanks to Algonquin Books for providing a digital ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!
Moonrise Over New Jessup
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Pub Date: 10 January 2023
Genre: Historical Fiction
Winner of the 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, a thought-provoking and enchanting debut about a Black woman doing whatever it takes to protect all she loves at the beginning of the civil rights movement in Alabama.
It’s 1957, and after leaving the only home she has ever known, Alice Young steps off the bus into the all-Black town of New Jessup, Alabama, where residents have largely rejected integration as the means for Black social advancement. Instead, they seek to maintain, and fortify, the community they cherish on their “side of the woods.” In this place, Alice falls in love with Raymond Campbell, whose clandestine organizing activities challenge New Jessup’s longstanding status quo and could lead to the young couple’s expulsion—or worse—from the home they both hold dear. But as Raymond continues to push alternatives for enhancing New Jessup’s political power, Alice must find a way to balance her undying support for his underground work with her desire to protect New Jessup from the rising pressure of upheaval from inside, and outside, their side of town.
Jamila Minnicks’s debut novel is both a celebration of Black joy and a timely examination of the opposing viewpoints that attended desegregation in America. Readers of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets will love Moonrise Over New Jessup.
⚠️ CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNINGS
Sexual assault (minor mention), racism, racial slurs, hate crimes (brief mention), death of parent (off-page, mentioned), police brutality (minor mention), physical violence, slavery (brief mention)
TL;DR: Moonrise Over New Jessup was a beautifully crafted, thought-provoking historical fiction and a wonderful debut by Jamila Minnicks! This slow-paced character-driven story set in Alabama at the beginning of the civil rights movement shared a not-so-black-and-white perspective about integration and I found this an educative and informative, as well as an emotional read. Alice and Raymond were wonderful characters and I enjoyed how the author thoughtfully crafted these insights and viewpoints through their life and love story. I would definitely recommend this if you enjoy historical fiction!
When I first heard about this, it was the cover that really caught my eye but the synopsis piqued my interest because it comes from a different perspective during the civil rights movement. Much of the mainstream literature/media that I’ve seen about this time period not only focuses on bigger cities/locations but also from the angle of only being pro-integration. Then again, I am reading this as someone who’s not Black or American or living in America or a Western country, so it’s likely that the “mainstream” stuff that I’m exposed to is really only a drop in an ocean. Still, I’m glad to have found this book that shares a different perspective and I’m happy that it came across my radar!
“Love by my hand tethered generations to generations, as well as kin by skin, in this place where all in me, and of me, can thrive.”
We meet Alice as she’s running away from the only home she’s ever known after being sexually assaulted by her landlord and she fortuitously comes across the small town of New Jessup. From there we follow her story as she makes a home and finds love and family, even if that means keeping secrets that could shake the peaceful new foundation she has built in this town. Moonrise Over New Jessup is a fairly slow-paced and character-driven story that was beautifully crafted. I was captivated by Minnicks’ lyrical prose from the very beginning as she sets the scene and brings this town to life over the course of several years. New Jessup is a unique safe haven where unwelcome signs and segregation don’t exist because it’s an all-black community. There’s a calm to the writing that matched the peaceful town setting very well, although I still felt a sense of underlying tension and I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is what kept me intrigued and reading; this is also what made this feel like a much faster read to me despite the slow pace.
“Folks inhaling confidence by exhaling these cutdown words. Slash after slash, year after year, generation after generation, leaving wounds that either lay open, weeping forever, or that keloided into a callous into an armor.”
While there was external pressure in the form of broiling racial tensions during the civil rights movement and from the surrounding town of white Jessup, most of the conflict and stressors in the story came from within the black community in New Jessup, between those fighting for integration and those who want to keep the status quo and continue living their peaceful lives in town. I really liked that this brought to the fore a nuanced perspective on the civil rights movement and shed light on how this situation might not have been so ‘black and white’ for many. Do you choose to live separately, with equal rights and self-governance? Or do you choose integration and equal rights? I don’t know much about this specific history so I don’t know how deeply these viewpoints and issues have been previously discussed but this discourse was new to me and I really appreciated learning about it! I particularly liked how Minnicks carefully and insightfully crafts these viewpoints through Alice’s and Raymond’s relationship over the years as they build a home and family together in a town that was built on the blood, sweat and hard work of their forefathers, and that has functioned separately and well for generations. I loved their relationship and the many tender moments that we get to bear witness to and though it might not have been perfect, I thought it was an honest portrayal of a relationship with its challenges and triumphs, as well as heartwarming and fraught moments.
Beyond the external social situation, Moonrise also sheds light on the various roles women play whether that’s in the traditional home-making sense or in pursuing a successful career and fighting for integration. It shows the women behind the men and the lengths that they would go to support and protect their families. I do, however, wish that the secondary characters had been a little more developed. I wanted to know more about Dot, who I felt had so much strength in her own right, Percy, Matthew and the other men involved in the fight for municipality and integration.
“Pockets for secrets were plentiful in the house where Raymond grew up. Not just for people, but for things, memories.”
I’m not generally a fan of open endings, but I do understand why it was written this way. While the final lead-up to this end felt slightly rushed, admittedly anticlimactic, and less well thought out compared to the rest of the book, I do think it was a fitting ending as what’s written is really only the beginning of their story. Would I love to know what the couple decides to do and what happens to them and New Jessup following that ending? I definitely do, nonetheless, I thought it was an appropriately hopeful and satisfying ending. Overall, I think this was a wonderful piece of educative fiction that sheds light on a part of history and I think it could foster some great discussions if read for a book club or with a group of friends! I personally learned a lot through the read and I hope this gets the proper attention it deserves.
Is Moonrise Over New Jessup on your TBR or does it sound like a book you’d enjoy?