The latest chapter starts with nine women packed into an apartment living room in Renton. Today's book is Angela Henry's "Tangled Roots,"...
The latest chapter starts with nine women packed into an apartment living room in Renton. Today’s book is Angela Henry’s “Tangled Roots,” a mystery full of twists and turns, incendiary family dynamics and a wedding-from-hell, of which hostess Elaine Pearsall observes: “There were some real ghetto-acting people there.”
Doris Hill was not overly impressed with the book or the author — not initially, anyway. “But the more I got into it,” she says, “she just had me going. I thought, it can’t be all that bad if she had me laughing like that.”
It might seem like just another book club, but the 17 African-American women who comprise this one go back a long way. A few — sisters Harriet Slye and Edna Nunn, plus cousin Gloria Eastland — have known each other since childhood. Others are former classmates from Renton or Garfield High or even earlier, while others joined the club as fellow churchgoers, bus riders or friends of friends.
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A literary tradition
Every last Sunday of the month marks another meeting at somebody’s home, and more than a club, it’s become a tradition. “You kind of plan things around that,” Nunn says. “Somebody once decided not to come because they were going to a movie, and we were like, on Book Club day? People were just astonished.”
It’s not just the snacking-and-yakking routine of meetings that has cemented their bonds. It’s their common backgrounds as African-American women, their focus on African-American authors and a longevity and closeness that make the best of friends.
In the process, they’ve crafted their own stories of inspiration, standing with each other through life’s challenges and joys, with character insights only the best of novels can provide. Some have been known to bring first-grade photos of each other for teasing purposes.
Book discussion is preceded by social hour. As most have gone from their 40s into their late 50s and early 60s, even conversation topics have evolved. “We started out talking about our kids, school, how they were growing, the kind of people they’re becoming,” Nunn says. “And now we talk about fiber.”
And grandchildren. And bad eyesight. And bodies that are slowing down.
“Our next subject will be long-term care,” says Jackie Roberts, who worked for Boeing.
Reading and writing
Members attend local readings by African-American writers such as Walter Mosley (a club favorite) — or host events for others, including Nancy Rawles, author of “My Jim,” and Lyah Beth LeFlore, co-author of the novel “Cosmopolitan Girls.”
Scrapbooks commemorate group trips to Martha’s Vineyard or to Winston-Salem, N.C. Last fall, they arranged to meet author J. California Cooper (another club favorite) in Portland.
Their most important project, however, was one that came from nearest the heart — a compilation of short stories they wrote themselves. Titled “Life Matters,” the print-shop-bound book features their cut-out photographs on the cover and is prefaced by the proverb, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.”
“That was a benchmark moment,” Roberts says.
Nearly two decades ago, Nunn was among several friends — including sister Slye, cousin Hill and friends Roberts and Helen Harris — who would often tell each other about the books each had been reading. In 1991, it finally dawned on them that they should start a book club.
They called it, simply, “The Book Club,” and decided to focus exclusively on African-American female writers. “That’s basically what we were all reading on a personal level,” Nunn says. “At the time, there weren’t that many out there, so we wanted to support the ones there were.”
When they started, though, there was only so much Toni Morrison to go around. Although they’d eventually broaden their choices to include African-American men, their frustration with the quality of books they were reading prompted them into action. “We got tired of reading about pimps and prostitutes,” Roberts says. “The subject matter was just awful.”
That’s how “Life Matters,” the short-story compilation they put together around 1999, came about. Hill drew on her experience as a cancer survivor to write one story, while Sylvia Bushnell based hers on fond memories of summers in Portland. In another, member Patricia Coleman wrote about her great-grandfather, who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.
For several years, the women tried in vain to get it published, but all agree that their real accomplishment was in the project itself.
Since then, an explosion of African-American authors and genres such as historic fiction, mystery, even science fiction, has broadened their reading selection. “It was a real draw for me that these were African-American writers,” says Hill, who’d lamented the lack of them throughout her college-reading years. “It makes it easier for us to relate to each other.”
On the move
Now, other than meeting on the last Sunday afternoon of the month, there’s little organization to the group, which is how they like it. When the club began, “We were all in jobs and things that had structure,” Roberts says. “So we wanted something that didn’t.”
Most members are near 60, but a couple are in their 40s, such as former school board candidate Linda Thompson-Black. The club has decided that 17 is enough, and considering how long its members have known each other, it’s easy to see why: Anyone attempting to join now would be jumping into a novel halfway through.
In 2003, they made their first trip to Martha’s Vineyard to see where reality meets fiction. Many books they’ve read have been set there — for example, Steven L. Carter’s “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and Dorothy West’s “The Wedding.”
Then, in 2005, 10 members attended North Carolina’s National Black Theater Festival. “We must have gone to 10 or 12 plays that week,” Slye says.
In addition to Henry’s “Tangled Roots,” books they’ve read this year include Cupcake Brown’s “A Piece of Cake” and the Ian Smith mystery “The Blackbird Papers.”
“When does it get good?” Roberts wondered, regarding Brown’s rise-from-the-ashes memoir, and Slye told her, “Um, page 412 or something like that.” Smith’s novel, though, was a rarity — a book they all could agree they liked. “Just when you thought you were getting to the end, something else happened,” Coleman says.
By request, they once met with a group of younger women who’d started their own book club as a local chapter of a national African-American book-club organization. “That was just too structured for us,” Slye says. “We’re kind of laid-back. We just say, discuss the book and go where it takes you.”
The younger club’s members were fascinated by how long The Book Club had been together. “They wanted to know how we did that,” Slye says. “We just said, ‘We get along really well.’ “
“I’m comfortable with this group,” Nunn says — and it’s not just because members can share a book they’ve read and uniquely experienced, although they certainly do.
No, it’s more than that. It’s the idea, Nunn says, that for a couple of hours each month, she can get together and relax with a group of women she’s comfortable with and be free of any other pressures: no children, no grandchildren, no parents, no spouses.
Just her and her closest pals. Sixteen years of a story still being written.
Pearsall appears from the kitchen: “Who wants pineapple upside-down cake?”
“Ooh,” Nunn says. Three snaps for the cook. “I do.”
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org