‘Jam on the Vine’ takes readers to 1920s Kansas City

Jam on the Vine, by LaShonda Barnett (336 pages; Grove Press; $24)
Jam on the Vine, by LaShonda Barnett (336 pages; Grove Press; $24)

Kansas City, 1925. Ivoe Williams is a black lesbian journalist and has been elected secretary of the Association of Journalists Representing African Diaspora.

When no paper will hire her, she and her lover establish their own. Their headquarters is at 18th and Vine.

But that is how LaShonda Barnett’s book ends.

The first half of the novel is about Ivoe’s upbringing in the East Texas town of Little Tunis. The characters are one generation removed from slavery; no system is in place for the newly freed to earn much of a living.

“The elders suffered till death, bewildered that they had lived to see freedom and would die hungry because of it.”

Exacerbating the situation, the government erects a prison, replacing the sharecroppers with free convict labor.

Barnett took inspiration for the protagonist of “Jam on the Vine” from real-life journalist Ida B. Wells. Wells was an editor, suffragist, civil rights leader and sociologist in the early 20th century.

Nasty events surround Ivoe’s family for the first third of the book, but their extreme oppression combined with how close-knit they are doesn’t make for interesting reading; the focus is on Ivoe and her kin, and next to no conflict exists among them.

The book is at its best when Ivoe leaves for college. She learns to operate a printing press, is encouraged by a teacher to go into journalism, takes a vengeful lover and realizes she wants in on the ground floor of the civil rights movement.

Barnett is careful to keep the scales balanced, not creating a simple portrayal of the bad white people or the put-upon black people. Ivoe’s mother’s first employer, a wealthy white woman, befriends and encourages Ivoe to succeed. Many times, the story portrays black people hurting their own cause.

The book’s title, “Jam on the Vine,” is the name of the newspaper Ivoe founds. “The paper takes its name from the spirit of enterprise possessed by my mother, who sustained her family through the hardest of times by selling tomato jam,” Ivoe writes in her inaugural editorial.

Ivoe means for the paper to target “the thorns on the vine, those no longer completely controlled by the domination of whites for the first times in their lives and a discredit to the race.”

The author’s endnotes are fascinating, citing real newspaper articles and historical events that are the backbone of the novel.

Barnett, who was born in Kansas City, will speak April 21 at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

Anne Kniggendorf,