Under the Tulip Tree

Written by Michelle Shocklee
Review by Kristen Hannum

In racist Jim Crow Nashville, 1936, 23-year-old Lorena Leland’s family is in trouble. They still live in a grand house in a good part of town, but their honor is gone because her father’s bank, one of the largest in Tennessee, went bankrupt, in part because of the Stock Market Crash and in part because of his dishonesty.

He turned to drink. Her mother works at a sewing shop and Lorena at a city newspaper. It is barely enough, and then Lorena is laid off.

When her former editor tells her about the possibility of getting hired for a Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, she hesitates. The work is interviewing elderly Black people who were once enslaved. But after Lorena meets Frankie Washington, aged 101, her fears dissipate. For her part, Frankie generously shares the story of her life and wisdom with the young white woman. Lorena keeps secret whom she is interviewing from her family. And then she learns that her connection to the injustices that beset Frankie are personal.

I loved this story. It’s a page-turner, with likable characters and a hopeful view of what is possible when white people actually listen to Black people. Ironically, that hopeful view was my only quibble. While I had fleeting doubts about Lorena’s sudden lack of racism, a few paragraphs, at the book’s end, suggested Lorena’s writing was, possibly, changing Nashville’s brutal race relations, with white women “discussing an initiative” to help. Not so. Brutal injustices continued. Even with that reality-based caveat, Under the Tulip Tree is a great read with an inspirational message of love and connection between individuals and between communities.