Wild Women and the Blues

Written by Denny S. Bryce
Review by Sarah Johnson

With her first historical novel, Denny S. Bryce emerges as an exciting new writer of historical fiction. The two timelines in this multi-period story are both gripping. In Chicago in 1925, “The Stroll”—a section of State Street—blazes with the sights and sounds of Black nightlife: live jazz from talented performers, speakeasies with illicit booze, and showgirls with sparkling costumes and hot dance moves. Honoree Dalcour, a sharecropper’s daughter from Mississippi, has a regular gig dancing at Miss Hattie’s but dreams of performing at the Dreamland Café, a prestigious black-and-tan club. When her first love, Ezekiel Bailey, returns to town after a long absence, and her audition at the Dreamland turns unexpectedly risky, Honoree is plunged into dangerous waters in more ways than one.

In 2015, film student Sawyer Hayes pays a visit to Honoree, a supercentenarian in a nursing home whose fragile body holds a still-feisty spirit. In pursuit of his doctorate, Sawyer hopes Honoree can authenticate a possible lost film by pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux showing Honoree dancing in her younger years. His conversations with Honoree, though, are hardly straightforward since she seems unusually guarded about events from 1925.

The stories dance together marvelously: the plot is in constant motion, and the interplay between them results in surprising twists. Bryce skillfully evokes place and period with vibrant descriptions of the glamorous and treacherous sides of Jazz Age Chicago and fun period slang. The subtle characterizations are a high point as well, such as Honoree’s interactions with pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, whose upscale society party has Honoree seeing herself in a new light, and Sawyer’s slow emergence from intense grief over his sister’s death. An especially impressive debut with a strong voice and very cool historical vibe.