Blanche on the Lam
Author: Barbara Neely
Publisher: Brash Books
DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!
Today is Barbara Neely day on my blog! Either that or it's Blanche White day. Blanche White is a black woman in dire straits. She has two children (who are actually a niece and a nephew) whom she removed from New York City because she wanted them raised in a safer environment, only to discover that it's a lot harder to make a living in a smaller town. When a couple of her employers screw her on paychecks and a couple of her own checks bounce, she finds herself looking at thirty days in the slammer. Being claustrophobic, Blanche blanched at this. Fortunately for her sanity, a disturbance in the court house gave her the opportunity to slip away and go on the lam. I liked this premise!
Lucking into a job almost accidentally, she finds herself quickly whisked away to a rich white family's summer home in the country where she's the sole servant in the household, feeding and cleaning for a dysfunctional family consisting of the wealthy and sickly aunt, two money-grubbing dependents, and a sweet, somewhat intellectually-challenged younger man named Mumsfield. The problem is that there's something highly suspicious going on here and Blanche can't quite resolve what it is. When people start turning up dead, however, she realizes that the price of not figuring it out might be her own life.
I quite liked Blanche as a character in general, although I doubt I'd like her as a person: she has a shady side to her. On the other hand, she's 'suffered for her sins'. She's complex and multi-faceted, and far from a Mary Sue. In some regards she's not the smartest cookie in the jar, but on others, she's sharp as a tack, and always running through her mind like a drum-beat is the need to take care of these two children she's "inherited" from her sister.
On the problematic side, Blanche is rather racist, which I didn't appreciate. This is why I doubt I'd like her as a person. I know some people are racist regardless of their own skin color, and it's perfectly fine to depict them in stories, but to have your main character coming off like that isn't very endearing. Yes, she's essentially good at heart, but alongside that drumbeat to care for her charges, there's a second drumbeat that despises 'whitey' and carries a huge grudge as though it's a trophy!
Instead of focusing on the future, she routinely lets herself get dragged down by the distant past - a past of slavery and abuse. Yes, she grew up in an era during which racism was still prevalent and open, but she talks like nothing has improved. I kept wanting to take her aside and advise her that living in the past isn't going to change anything and that she'd be far better off - as would her children - if she got her head straight and focused on turning her own life around instead of trying to carry everyone's burden and trying to pass it off as the white man's.
On that score, when was this novel set? I have no idea. It was first published in 1992, but there's no indication (that I noticed) in the text to suggest when it actually takes place. Initially, I got the idea that it was in the early 1970's because of a mention of wanted posters for Joan Little (pronounced Jo-an, and misspelled as 'Joanne' in this novel), Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur, all criminals or near criminals at that time. The problem is that the second volume, set in 1994, follows on from this, so the first volume is at best confusingly vague and at worst, misleading with regard to the time-period. I was left to assume it took place in 1992 or thereabouts in retrospect, after having started on volume two in the series!
Those issues aside, the story was well-written, really exploring Blanche's innermost thoughts and feelings. She's not had a good life, and she tries to do her best, but she's a victim of poor decision-making on occasion. On top of this, and even though she constantly thinks of the kids and how she can dig herself out of the hole she's in, I have to add that she really doesn't spend much time with these kids!
Admittedly she's held hostage to circumstances until she can get some money together and so is restricted from visiting with the kids for a while. In a way she's serving her time and ironically (given her claustrophobia) she's tightly confined to her present location. The problem for me was that even after she was able to leave, her first instinct wasn't to go hug the kids, but to go away by herself to Boston (where the sequel begins). That struck me not only as being selfish, but also as betraying her character's mantra throughout this novel.
There really wasn't much sleuthing going on here either. Blanche pretty much fell into her crime-solving through a bit of snooping and eavesdropping, and the villain was rather given away quite early in the story. Because of this, some might find this novel a bit slow and ponderous, but for me it was entertaining, and I recommend it.