Review | Up Jumped the Devil

Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow

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Everyone knows the story about blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads to become the greatest guitar player the world had ever seen.
Most have probably heard the story about the bluesman being cut down in his prime by a bitter woman who poisoned him.

Johnson’s legacy is full of tall tales and inaccuracies that were never corrected after his untimely death.

Few facts are known about Robert Johnson’s life and those that are have rarely been shared because most prefer to believe the tall tales that create a myth rather than a man.

“What we produced is a book based not on conjecture about Robert Johnson, but on first-person accounts of who he actually was. By doing so we hope to free Johnson from being the sign and myth that blues fan created and return him to his human particulars.” *

Up Jumped the Devil collects these first-person accounts to share the story of Johnson’s life from birth to death and includes birth, marriage, and death certificates along with census records and a surprisingly complete geneaology.

Readers learn that Johnson was born the illegitmate son of Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds.  Julia left Noah Johnson when Robert was still an infant and eventually turned to her ex-husband (whom she had three previous children with), Charles Spencer (former last name Dodds), for help with the children.  Julia left all of her children, including Robert, with Charles and his new wife Mollie while she struck out to find a way to support herself.

Robert grew up believing Charles Spencer was his father and it wasn’t until much later he learned about Noah Johnson.  Still, the Spencers became Robert’s true family and he divided his time between Memphis and the Delta to be near them.

His mother eventually came to collect him from the Spencer home after she married a sharecropper and Robert was expected to work the fields and could no longer attend school.

Robert’s disinterest in field work angered his stepfather and Robert would often disappear to visit the Spencers and ramble around with his guitar, which became his passion.

The one and only thing that ever took Robert away from his guitar was love.  In 1929 he married Virginia Travis and became a sharecropper to support his wife.  By the end of the year, Virginia was expecting their first child and she eventually traveled to her grandmother’s home to prepare for the baby’s birth.

Tragically, Viriginia and the baby died from birth complications and it wasn’t until Robert arrived weeks later that he learned of their deaths.  Virginia’s family blamed Robert’s music for the deaths of his wife and child.  Robert’s friends say he turned his back on God after their deaths.

At 19 years old Robert Johnson had lost his wife and his child.  He eventually headed South to look for his biological father but instead found a friend and guitar mentor in Ike Zimmerman.  Zimmerman helped Johnson realize his unique sound and part of their rehearsals led to the infamous myth of the Devil’s Crossroads.
Ike’s daughter admits her father practiced guitar with Robert Johnson in a graveyard but laughs at the crossroads myth; she thinks it was for the peace and quiet so they wouldn’t be interrupted.

“They would leave and go to that cemetery. It’s got them old tombstones, you know some of them new, it was some of them old ones. He’d sit back there with him. He wasn’t at no crossroads. [It] was just a path. There wasn’t no crossroads. They went ‘cross the road [laughs]. ‘Cause you gotta go across [the] road and go to that cemetery. They went over there and sat on the tombstones. Exactly. And that’s where they was. Sitting there playing.” *

By age 25, Robert’s dream was realized when he became a recorded bluesman and his records could be found on jukeboxes and in record shops.  He managed to record eight songs in his first session, which couldn’t have been easy when he’d spent the previous night in jail and taken a beating.

As Robert’s fame grew, so did the tall tales.

“Since Robert never spoke about his family or background, none of his musical acquaintances had any idea that he had received music lessons in school in Memphis, that his older stepbrother Charles had given him some lessons on the guitar and piano, that he literally got beatings for devoting his time to music instead of field work, that he had apprenticed with Ike Zimmerman, one of Mississippi’s finest guitarists, nor that he might have had an eidetic memory for music. To them he was just a natural genius. They had no idea of the hours, months, and years he had devoted to learning his craft. Instead, his contemporaries attributed his abilities to some unseen talent that none of them possessed.” *


“Given Robert’s seemingly effortless abilities, it’s understandable that some people attributed his skills to supernatural forces. How else could one man be so good at so many different styles of playing? And Robert, as protective of his playing technique as he was, was certainly not going to reveal any of his secrets to anyone.” *

Johnson’s journey was a downward spiral, especially after he got a local girl pregnant.  He tried to get her and the baby to leave with him but the girl’s family obviously thought Robert was no good and the girl listened to her family, refusing to leave after he asked countless times.

Robert’s livelihood was juking.  He went from town to town performing, chasing women, and drinking heavily.

“He couldn’t seem to stay away from imminent dangers or dangerous women. He had no love for working in the cotton fields and the church had no appeal. All he could do was keep moving and try to outrun the danger, both imaginary and real.” *

It comes as no surprise that Robert Johnson’s downfall was a woman.

After a man discovered his wife was having an affair with Johnson, he dissolved several mothballs into a jar of corn liquor, which his wife shared with Johnson during a break from his performance.  The tasteless poison isn’t usually fatal; normally it causes no more than a bout of nausea, vomiting, and confusion.
However, Robert had been diagnosed a month before with an ulcer and esophageal varices.  The poison caused the ulcer and varices to hemorrhage and Robert Johnson died a slow and painful death at the age of 27.

Up Jumped the Devil is a fascinating look at Robert Johnson’s brief life, from his incredible talent to his inner demons.  It strives to give an accurate account of a man who became a musician, rather than a musician who became a legend, and I believe it succeeds in its delivery.

While we’re left with far more questions than answers, it’s easy to see in this book the events that shaped Robert Johnson and his music.  It may not be as shocking as the legend of the Devil’s Crossroads but the truth is just as appealing for me personally.  I’m happy to finally have some solid facts about this talented musician.

Thanks to Chicago Review Press and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review. Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson is scheduled for release on June 4, 2019.

*Quotes included are from a digital review copy and are subject to change upon final publication.

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Review | The Lady from the Black Lagoon

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara

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I had never heard the name Milicent Patrick until last year when this book began to appear on lists for upcoming releases.  I was immediately intrigued by the idea that a woman in 1950’s Hollywood was responsible for creating the legendary monster (often called Gill Man) in Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon is part biography and part detective story, covering the life of Milicent Patrick as well as Mallory O’Meara’s journey to unearth clues about Patrick’s film legacy.

O’Meara is up front about the fact that there isn’t a lot of solid proof of Patrick’s contibutions to special effects in film since most artists/designers were not credited during that era.

With little to go on, O’Meara did an impressive amount of research to piece together Patrick’s fascinating life:  she grew up near the grounds of “Hearst Castle” (her father was an architect for William Randolph Hearst’s grand home in San Simeon), her early romantic life was filled with tragedy, and she became one of Walt Disney’s first female animators.

Milicent eventually began working in the makeup department at Universal Studios, led by Bud Westmore.  She worked on several of their horror movies and in an unusual publicity move, Universal sent her on a promotional tour for the upcoming release of Creature from the Black Lagoon to discuss the creature and its design. She was asked to credit only Bud Westmore for its creation and she agreed. People became enamored with Milicent; she had charm and an unusual profession that they were fascinated by.
When Milicent returned to California, she was shocked to find she’d been fired by Bud Westmore.  It appeared that Bud was unhappy Universal sent Milicent on a press tour and that his name was being ignored while she was in the spotlight.  With Westmore against Milicent, she’d never work in special effects again.

Milicent Patrick was estranged from most of her family, didn’t have children, and most of her friends had also passed on by the time O’Meara began research for her book.  These factors made it extremely tough to put together a complete biography so a lot of the text is pure speculation.
Some readers may be uncomfortable with few solid facts, gaps in time, and speculation on events and emotions.

I enjoyed this book as it gave a voice to both Milicent Patrick and Mallory O’Meara.  O’Meara’s writing is conversational, witty, and extremely inviting.  She tells us when and why she became interested in Milicent Patrick and the importance of Patrick’s legacy.

This isn’t a traditional biography; it also contains a memoir with the author’s personal history and opinions and a look at the history of misogyny in the film industry.

O’Meara was inspired by Milicent Patrick’s professional accomplishments which are a rarity in the film industry, especially in the 1950’s.  She researched Patrick in order to get a better understanding of her role model, to acknowledge the accomplishments Hollywood didn’t credit, and to inspire females everywhere.

O’Meara’s last line sums up her journey perfectly:

“Milicent Patrick’s legacy isn’t just a body of influential work. It’s also an invitation.”

The Lady from the Black Lagoon covers several genres:  film/history, feminism, non-fiction, biography, memoir, and humor (O’Meara’s footnotes and occasional non-chalant use of the word ‘motherfucker’ made me smile).

Thanks to Hanover Square Press for sending me an advanced readers copy and Goodreads for hosting the ARC giveaway!

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick will be released on March 5, 2019*.

(I love the release date is March 5th because that’s also the day in 1954 that Creature from the Black Lagoon was released!)

Review | Josephine Baker’s Last Dance

Josephine Baker’s Last Dance by Sherry Jones

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I must say I didn’t know very much about Josephine Baker.  It wasn’t until I read the short children’s picture book biography in the Little People, Big Dreams series to my daughter that I learned she wasn’t just an entertainer but a woman who fought for Civil Rights equality and joined the French Resistance to destroy Hitler during World War II.

The short children’s biography was so brief and yet I was fascinated!  When I found Josephine Baker’s Last Dance on NetGalley earlier this year, I absolutely had to request it.

This book brings to life Baker’s most monumental moments, beginning in childhood when her mother hired her out as a servant to white people in St. Louis.  She suffered abuse not only at the hands of the people she served but also her own mother and step-father.

With an unstable home life, Josephine found herself living and sleeping with men when she was still a child.  Her love of music inspires her to perform and she begins touring with all black revues as a dancer.  She eventually makes her way to Paris, where she finds that segregation does not exist.

Josephine’s career explodes; she becomes the first black woman to dance nude on the Paris stage and the first to lead a movie and star in an opera.  Along the way she falls in love often and has a fierce sexual appetite, taking lovers in most cities she tours.

When Hitler gains control in Germany, Josephine will not forget the Nazis who scared her in Berlin and vows to bring them down.  She’s given the opportunity a few years later when she’s recruited in to the French Resistance; collecting important information from the government officials who occupy her night clubs and hope to seduce her.

Disgusted with segregation in America, Josephine refused to return to her home country to many years.  When she does return on tour, she is shocked to find nothing has changed and eventually chooses to dedicate her life to fighting prejudice.

Josephine Baker’s life was a whirlwind — there are so many daring and thrilling things she did in her life from a troubled teen searching for affection she didn’t receive at home, to flirtatious showgirl, to government spy, to Civil Rights activist!

The amount of fame Baker had in Europe was astonishing.  She was the sweetheart of Paris who could do no wrong for a time and I can only compare it to the stardom of modern day pop stars like Britney Spears in the early 2000’s.

Powerfully written, at times brazen and always unapologetically truthful like the woman herself, Sherry Jones has documented both the triumphs and tragedies of Josephine Baker, the bold woman who was ahead of her time in every way.

Thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  Josephine Baker’s Last Dance is scheduled for release on December 4, 2018.

 

Review | Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein

Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge

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Mary’s Monster is a strange but beautiful graphic novel biography written in verse.  The black and white illustrations are as haunting as the life of Mary Shelley herself.

Mary is barely sixteen when she falls in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  She runs away with the married (but supposedly separated) man and gives birth to a daughter who dies just days later.  During this time, Shelley’s wife also gives birth to a child, and he begins an affair with Mary’s step-sister Claire.

Drama much?

Mary believes in free love but is jealous and hurt by Shelley’s additional relationships.  They’ve been shunned by society for their unconventional lifestyle and while Percy Shelley is a talented poet, his work is overlooked and he is often mocked and ridiculed.

Mary, Percy, their newborn son, and Claire travel to Lake Geneva where they stay with the popular poet Lord Byron.  While he’s known for scandalous behavior, he is held in high regard for his work.  He agrees with the free love lifestyle and gets along well with his guests.
On a rainy night, the group begin to tell scary stories and a challenge is made by Byron for each guest to create a ghost story.

After listening to macabre discussions of animated corpses of animals and creating life, Mary has nightmares that set in motion the world’s most enduring horror story:  Frankenstein.

Around this time, more drama begins.
Mary’s step-sister Claire has fallen in love with Lord Byron and is now pregnant with his child.  Byron rejects Claire and decides he will take the baby once it’s born.  There is nothing Mary or Claire can do to stop this since women have not even basic rights.

While awaiting the birth of Claire’s child, Mary is also once again pregnant.  She receives a letter from her sister Fanny who has fallen into depression since the family name has been ruined by the actions of Mary and Claire.
Fanny commits suicide by opium overdose and their father tells everyone she has gone to visit friends abroad to save face.
Soon after, Shelley’s wife Harriet is found dead in the Thames River, considered a suicide.  Rumors fly that she was pregnant with Shelley’s baby.
Mary blames herself for both the death of her sister and her lover’s wife.

Through all the scandal and drama, Mary continues to write Frankenstein.  She has been rejected by her family, persecuted by society, abandoned in her time of need multiple times by the man she loves, and she uses all the hurt and anger to create a creature that will captivate readers for hundreds of years.

Frankenstein is published anonymously in 1818 and is condemned by reviewers for the atheistic views of the unknown author.
Percy Shelley’s new poem is ignored by critics and he is instead targeted once again for his lifestyle and accused of driving his wife to suicide.

They flee London under heavy scrutiny and soon lose their son and second daughter to malaria.
The couple settle in Italy and eventually have another son and both begin to write once again.
Percy Shelley is haunted by his demons and disillusioned with his writing.  After sailing off into a storm, his body is found washed ashore ten days later.

At the age of twenty four, Mary Shelley has lost three babies and is now a widow.  Estranged from her last relative, Claire, she returns to England with her son where she finds Frankenstein has been adapted into a play.  Lord Byron publishes letters that prove Mary wrote the novel and she is somewhat redeemed in society though she chooses to have a small circle of friends away from gossip.

This is the bizarre true story of the life of Mary Shelley:  full of scandal, abusive relationships, and passion that makes for a whole lot of drama.  While most people during her lifetime were interested in her shocking lifestyle and the gossip it stirred up, today people are intrigued by the events that led to her enduring classic novel Frankenstein and her defiance of the period’s restrictions on women.  She challenged ethical beliefs, the laws of nature, and women’s rights in both her writing and the life she led.  It’s safe to say Mary Shelley was far ahead of her time.

This was a quick and interesting read written in verse and full of illustrations.  I love that the author gave an accurate historical account of the life of Mary Shelley through poetry relying on emotion while also interpreting how the profound events shaped her creative masterpiece.

The graphic novel biography genre is relatively new but I’m already a fan of this unique style!

Review | House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg

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Liz Rosenberg has done an exceptional job of collecting candid personal details of the life of beloved author L.M. Montgomery, bringing to light her life long struggles with anxiety and depression.  A prolific writer, Montgomery’s determination led her to overcome financial difficulties to obtain additional education uncommon for young women and go on to become one of the highest paid and beloved female writers of her time.

I enjoyed learning about Montgomery’s childhood and how she managed to turn portions of her sad childhood into a hopeful and positive story that still resonates with millions of readers today.
Her mother died when she was a small child and she was raised by her maternal grandparents who were old-fashioned in their beliefs (including that women didn’t need further education).  After school, she moved to an isolated area of Canada to be reunited with her father, who had remarried and had another child.  Her step-mother was unkind and treated Maud like a maid rather than a daughter.  Their strained relationship eventually led her to move back to Prince Edward Island with her grandparents.  Her grandmother eventually championed Maud’s independence and used her savings to help Maud attend college.

While Maud’s focus was always on her writing and education, she managed to leave several suitors in her wake.  She lacked interest in marriage and while she had one passionate affair in her youth, she later resigned herself to marrying a reverend she didn’t seem to have romantic feelings for around the time Anne of Green Gables was published.

In mid-life, Maud was surprised to become pregnant for the first time.  She had two sons and suffered the devastating loss of another baby in between.

Her adult life was plagued with unhappiness and long bouts of manic depression, worsened by her husband’s mental illness as well.  It is still unknown if Lucy Maud Montgomery accidentally overdosed on medication or if she committed suicide.  What is certain is that the world lost a determined woman and incredibly talented writer.

This is a wonderful middle-grade / YA biography covering the important details of a brilliant writer’s life. The book unfolds at a nice pace and gives a complete story rather than focusing on particulars or getting lost in insignificant details.

Thanks to Candlewick Press and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery is scheduled for release on June 12, 2018.