Now in paperback from Penmore Press!
The trouble with K.C. Brown’s desire to play alto sax for a local jazz band is that she’s a 19-year-old white girl, the band members are middle-aged black men, the year is 1948, and they all live in a racially divided Midwestern town.
In the Blood explores the cultural, sexual, generational, and economic issues in post-World War II America, framed in the context of a friendship and understanding that develops between K.C. and the band’s ailing trombonist, Freddie Ross.
Click the button below to see a tune attributed to Dwayne Hite, the bandleader of the Blue Notes:
Early Reviews for In the Blood
So much has happened since the time this book was first drafted, and now more than ever (to use a phrase I hate), this story matters.
A 19-year-old white girl joining a jazz band of all black men, all older than her, seasoned, living in a world apart even though they live in the same town, a fictionalized version of Waterloo, Iowa: this is a fantasy, right? A fairy tale?
Racism, violence, drugs, ruined lives, and a social veneer that sweeps sordid truths under the rug, or onto the other side of the tracks. KC Brown sees through the hypocrisy and “social distancing” (which used to mean something else) and breaks down barriers, no matter what the personal cost.
This is a thoroughly researched, nuanced, well-written novel, packed full of meaning and metaphor and themes that could occupy a classroom of students for hours. I could write pages and pages of commentary and praise, with Kindle highlights. And I will.
For now, I will hold off on the social implications that make this novel so relevant in these turbulent times, and focus just on the magic, because that’s about all I’m psychologically up for.
Magic! Bring it on!
Even though it’s historical fiction, with all the gritty, brutal real-life truth we expect from the genre, “In the Blood” is a 20th Century fairy tale. Not in the sense that Cinderella finds Prince Charming and lives with him happily ever after, but that…well, dang, I just can’t say much without SPOILERS, and there is so, so much I want to say about “In the Blood” by Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman.
One glance at the plot summary, and you know this story is going to be tough for the authors to pull off, but they do:
**The trouble with K.C. Brown’s dream of playing alto sax with a local jazz band is that she’s a nineteen-year-old white girl, the band members are middle-aged black men, the year is 1948, and they all live in a racially divided town in Iowa.**
Even though K.C. Brown is the youngest sibling of two sisters and a brother who died bravely in WWII, she finds her fairy godmother, so to speak, in the most unexpected form, a lonely jazz trombonist with mangled hands.
Twisted people, twisted history. Dave Hoing has a rare gift of making me wince and cringe and shield my eyes, but it’s too late, I’ve been pulled into the story, and this fictional world is so real, I can no more leave the story than I could go jump off a bridge.
Character development is spot-on, even in the most minor players. I guarantee it. There is so much to say about every single minor character, especially members of this jazz band, I think I’ll just let the reader meet them all firsthand.
KC’s boyfriend, her boss at the grocery store, her groping co-worker, her sisters with their 1950s attitudes, her nosy landlady, the musicians with drug habits that keep them from performing, Freddy’s wife, a cat named Washington–even the cat his a distinct and memorable personality!–and the locals who resurface from previous Hoing and Hileman novels, all are so real, it’s hard to believe this is only fiction.
The ending is sad in so many ways, yet uplifting and gratifying.
Hoing and Hileman always deliver lyrical prose, quotable quotes, and provocative insights. Poignant, tragic, maddening, horrifying events, usually taken straight from real life, make all their stories unforgettable.
Just try to forget what happened to Freddy’s fingers. And why he was unable to get proper medical care. Or the workers who went on strike at the meat packing plant, and the shooting that happened in real life, though names were changed in the novel.
World War II is still a recent memory when the novel opens in the same town we read about in “Hammon Falls,” with its haunting tale of a WWI soldier taken–you guessed it–straight from real life. Hoing and Hileman fictionalize the names of the towns, but local business and landmarks are recognizable to anyone who’s been there. Lost loved ones live on in fiction.
KC’s brother Kenny is forever a part of her, gone but not forgotten in that way so many of us know all too well. Whatever she does, wherever she goes, she carries part of her brother with her. Hard-hitting prose, lean, economical, lyrical, captures this in scene after scene. E.g.,
“Her brother didn’t miss the war. Kenny didn’t wait to be drafted, enlisting in ’41. He was brave. He was the best. He volunteered for every dangerous mission. He died. He never got to have a wife, or a house, or children, or a dog. Worse, all of his music died with him–all, except what was left inside K.C.”
KC may seem like an anachronism, the only free-thinking member of her family, resisting the limited expectations of a girl in a small Iowa town. Women, along with Blacks, were held back in a court of public opinion that punished those who stepped outside boundaries that society held dear. It was an era where racism was acceptable and allowing blacks to rent hotel rooms was not, even if those blacks were famous entertainers.
Naturally, the white folk took pride in being tolerant of blacks living and working alongside them, but Hoing yanks the curtain back on their ignorance with snarky inner monologues that ring true, e.g.:
“The white folks here didn’t like blacks any more than in Biloxi or Selma, but most were too stupid even to be good racists.”
“… one of those progressive white families that was on the side of the Negro. Made no difference what they said they believed: push come to shove, none of them wanted one of their own living black. Being fair-minded was fine, long as it involved someone else’s kid.”
As a result of her strong-minded, independent thinking, KC thinks of herself as a nice person but she doesn’t have many (any) friends. Her boyfriend, her parents, her own sister hold her in judgment (one particular scene involving KC’s sister is particularly upsetting, but no spoiler here).
This book has the power to leave me angry and outraged, disillusioned, and disappointed in human nature, but in the end, something beautiful shines through all the sordid reality, and I’m left feeling there is hope for humanity.
That is no small feat. That’s magic.
If you want to read more where this came from, see “Hammon Falls” and other historical fiction by Hoing and Hileman.
Carol Kean, VINE VOICE
Just spent most of the day finishing it because I couldn’t put it down. I think it’s wonderful. As I said before, I would like to get a little more feel for K.C. situation at the beginning–the race barrier, the gender, the common expectations of a young girl at the time, etc. But other than that, it is an amazing mosaic of the times. I love the balance throughout–not everyone is racist or open minded, pro or anti union, etc. I love that Jack is such a great guy overall making K.C.’s choice that much more difficult.
Karen Nortman, author of The Time Travel Trailer Series
Kasey (or “K.C.” as she prefers to style her first name in accordance with her musical aspirations) Brown hails from a staid and conventional family of the staid and conventional city of Waterton, Iowa, a thinly veiled representation of Waterloo, Iowa, the hometown of the authors. Waterton is the main venue of Hammon Falls, a previously published novel of the writing team of Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman and there is a minor tie-in to the former work via a character’s now deceased father. Nineteen-year-old Kasey is, however, far from conventional in a place and era where and when traditional Christian morality and mores have a stranglehold over “decent society.” Kasey is rather a renegade, at odds with her parents over her passion and goal in life to become a professional musician as well as her “loose” sexual habits, at least as defined by her times.
Although she doesn’t cohabitate, forbidden in her apartment building – and probably by law then – her boyfriend Jack occasionally spends nights with her as the building’s manager turns a blind eye, less out of sympathy, as one gets the impression, than a reluctance to make waves and jeopardize the loss of a paying tenant. Complicating Kasey’s seemingly serious relationship with Jack is her parents’ antipathy towards him bred from a long ago high school feud between the young lovers’ mothers, not to mention rumors of the young man having taken liberties with their daughter’s honor, presumably having led her into a course of ill repute.
The year is 1948. Kasey and Jack work in a local grocery store as Jack, having narrowly escaped the WWII draft, attends college in preparation for becoming an economics teacher, an ambition that Kasey finds respectable yet boring as she envisions herself consigned to a lifetime of being a housewife and mother like one of her more conventional two older sisters. (The other is also somewhat estranged from their parents over her vocational choice of opening a dance studio, a profession they find less than respectable for a young woman of her background.) Such a fate is most decidedly not to the heretical Kasey’s more exotic tastes.
Although a gifted pianist with virtuoso potential, Kasey’s first love is the alto sax, an instrument that features prominently in jazz, a musical genre developed by African-American musicians and still dominated by them. She therefore aspires to join a local black jazz band comprised of middle-aged men or near, which establishes the seemingly preposterous premise of the novel, a young white woman publicly playing with older black musicians in such a segregationist and outright racist era. This reviewer was most skeptical but read on to gradually have his doubts dispelled as the writers adroitly navigate the pitfalls of what appears to be such an absurd narrative arc.
Kasey, responding to a newspaper advertisement, auditions for a jazz band called The Bluenotes, a musical reference to a jazz technique of playing or singing a piece a tad flat for effect, in a black section of town in a club called the New Orleans, but pronounced by all as the “Narlins.” It is owned and operated by a widow named Ruthie, a no-nonsense, black businesswoman with a sardonic wit who nevertheless often displays a sympathetic and compassionate underlying nature. The band is managed by Dwayne Hite, an educated and always impeccably dressed man who has retired as a performer in order to concentrate on his band and composing “charts” (musical compositions), often variations of songs he has lifted from other bands, a standard practice within the jazz scene of the era.
The band’s booking agent is Freddie Ross who is also its trombonist. Ross has badly mangled fingers, the source of which is the product of a misspent youth that remains a mystery to Kasey until near the end of the events related within the novel. A very talented pianist (or “eigthy-eighter” in jazz parlance) in his youth playing Scott Joplin and other greats of the period ragtime genre, Ross was forced to take up the trombone, the only instrument he could play after this great tragedy of his life which gives rise to his sobriquet of “Boneman,” one of many colorful music-related nicknames of characters who populate the book. The long ago sordid incident did, however, instill within him a reflective wisdom, equanimity, and sense of empathy bred from experience, the lack of which as a young man had colored his entire life thereafter.
The band is amused at the audacity of this young woman whom they dub “White Bird,” both because of her apparent youthful hubris in thinking she could play well enough to join them and her equally apparent naivete that even if she could, it would be tenable for her to join a black band in an era when racism was not only endemic, but accepted as natural by blacks and whites alike. When Kasey smugly asks if any other applicant: “Can do the changes [improvisations] in ‘Ko-Ko’?” (a bebop or “bop” standard composed by genre legend Charlie Parker, Jr. (“Yardbird” or just “Bird”), Hite mockingly responds: “‘Do the changes’? Ain’t it somethin’ how dat white girl do talk jive?” before playfully adding: “What I mean is, the young lady is impressive in her ability to express herself in the appropriate vernacular.” The book is replete with such skillful dialogue tangentially addressing period stereotypical racial prejudices and nuances.
Although she inevitably fails the audition, Kasey remains persistent in her goal after receiving solace and encouragement from a sympathetic Ross, an older man who later becomes a mentor and even an uncle-like figure in the course of events. Unable to find a suitable replacement for the band’s recently departed alto saxophonist (which constitutes an intriguing backstory), in desperation Hite, through Ross, offers the job to Kasey, much to her delight but to the astonishment of others in the band who fear (a not unwarranted reaction as events turn out) racial repercussions as well as those in Kasey’s personal life, including Jack who, despite relatively enlightened views, bears vestiges of racial prejudices.
The remainder of the novel relates Kasey’s coming to terms with her now being able to pursue her dream and navigating the inevitable consequences of it while preparing for her first “gig” with her bandmates as well as peripheral matters such as a bitter labor strike at the town’s meatpacking plant which results in violence and death, an historical event lifted from real life in Waterloo. As she strives to fit in with her newfound companions, Kasey also discovers and experiences facets of black life and culture during this time period.
It is in this context that she encounters Sue, another racial renegade of the period, a hardboiled, chain-smoking white woman from a prejudiced family who had nevertheless married and divorced the brother of a band member and bore a mixed race daughter. A librarian and former school bus driver, she drives the band to their out-of-town gigs and serves as a source of solace to the young Kasey needing a sympathetic ear in the unorthodox situation which she has entered.
Most of all, Kasey’s relationship with Freddie blossoms into their becoming full-fledged confidants. She is horrified at Freddie’s revelations concerning the traumatic past in the Deep South of his longtime wife, a former prostitute whom he had patronized as a youth, with whom he has shared a tumultuous relationship with frequent separations; and finally, the story behind his mangled fingers. Aside from exploring racial prejudices and tensions of the period, the novel also explores the seemingly endemic and existentially menacing specter of heroin in the subculture of jazz musicians then, as well as undertones of homosexuality, a taboo topic even within the white community of the era and viewed as especially depraved by blacks.
As a side story, throughout the book Kasey is almost literally haunted by her patriotic, courageous older brother who died in North Africa in the war. Kenny had also been a gifted musician who had alone, save for their high school music teacher, encouraged his kid sister’s ambitions. Kasey has countless imaginary conversations with Kenny throughout the novel, though she is not mentally ill, fully realizing that she is the source of both her voice and his. She often finds refuge during her periods of stress and sorrow with such subterfuge of solace coming from such a revered and beloved figure from her recent past.
In the Blood is a tour de force that cries out to be translated into a feature film along the lines of Ray, the superlative movie based upon the life of musical legend Ray Charles. The music alone would serve as a tantalizing hook, but when combined with such a superb narrative would become fascinating viewing. I unreservedly recommend it as compelling period reading that explores a society of the not too distant past but seems so alien to many of us living today in a very different time nonetheless.
Donald Schneider, Midwest Review
This is the second book I’ve read by Hoing and Hileman. In the Blood is their newest venture. As the book began the plot seemed a bit far-fetched and improbable but as the story progressed I found myself fully immersed in the characters and wanting everything to turn out all right in the end. This book is about music, it’s about cultural shifts and it’s about life. In the Blood is smartly written, with every musical term and description spot-on. For those who have read Hoing and Hileman’s previous book, Hammon Falls, you’ll find family references tying characters from In the Blood to a previous generation in Hammon Falls – truly heartwarming.
Diane Thayer, Music Educator
It’s an interesting, engaging storyline, the characters are intriguing, believable and the development of same is well-balanced. The passages describing the music itself struck a nice balance between the impressionistic, emotional response of a lay-person’s sensibilities with exceptionally drawn insiders’ POVs which showed a nice command of technical terms and convincing feel for the actual creation of improvisational music. Just very nicely done all around.
Likewise, the period-specific dealing with jazz trends rang true, and the way you dealt with varying tastes, both from black to white AND across age groups–as has nearly always been the case, preference of one musical faction over another has some links to racial divides, but is usually more connected to age groups than race. So the push-pull vis a vis swing versus bop rings true; few are died-in-the-wool fanatical about it, but preferences are clearly drawn.
Speaking of race, the characters feel honest and solid. Whether or not it was a conscious choice (I can’t imagine that it wasn’t at least discussed), I applaud that you bypassed attempting to generate “authentic” African-American speech patterns. What you have done feels natural and unaffected, and the characterizations do not suffer in the least…in fact, it is very strong.
I loved the book. K.C.’s troubled familial relationships were handled well (esp. the sister/brother-in-law segments); likewise, her finding her way to cross cultural divides with her musician friends were thoughtfully worked and avoided stereotypical traps and genre cliches.
Jim Musser, Music Reviewer