Jazz Baby Book Blurb
While all of Mississippi bakes in the scorching summer of 1925, sudden orphanhood wraps its icy embrace around pretty Emily Ann “Baby” Teegarten, a young teen.
Taken in by an aunt bent on ridding herself of this unexpected burden, Baby Teegarten plots her escape using the only means at her disposal: a voice that brings church ladies to righteous tears, and makes both angels and devils take notice. “I’m going to New York City to sing jazz,” she brags to anybody who’ll listen. But the Big Apple—well, it’s an awful long way from that dry patch of earth she’d always called home.
So when the smoky stages of New Orleans speakeasies give a whistle, offering all sorts of shortcuts, Emily Ann soon learns it’s the whorehouses and opium dens that can sidetrack a girl and dim a spotlight…and knowing the wrong people can snuff it out.
Jazz Baby just wants to sing—not fight to stay alive.
LL Book Review Talks Jazz Baby
Imagine a coming-of-age protagonist who is a mix of Scout Finch (a few years older) and Holden Caulfield (a few years younger), navigating an adult world of Blue Velvet type characters. Reading Jazz Baby, a distinctly Southern novel by Beem Weeks, one can’t help associate other literary works and films; yet this remarkable novel manages to etch out its own identity.
Pubescent and pretty, precocious and impetuous, Emily Ann (Baby) Teegarten is growing up fast in Rayford, Mississippi in the Jazz Age. There she harbours grand aspirations to sing jazz in New York. Her parents are encouraging but too poor to help on their own. A rich couple offers to take Emily Ann to a church in Jackson to audition for a scholarship. She sings beautifully but sounds, “a bit too Negro for a white child,” according to the pastor. When the pastor adds that they can, “train that heathen tone from your voice,” Emily Ann`s reaction, while saving her integrity, ruins any chance at a scholarship.
A family friend, Tanyon Thibbedeaux, plucks her away. At least he appreciates her talent for what it is and envisions her singing at speakeasies across the river, in New Orleans. He also breaks the news to Emily Ann that, during her absence, her father died. Furthermore, the death was at the hands of Emily Ann’s mother.
The orphaned girl is taken in by her righteous, but loving and stable, Aunt Frannie. This complicates Tanyon’s and Emily Ann’s plans. But she’s a clever girl despite her age. She discovers how to use her sexuality—which carries more value than real money in Rayford—to get friends to help distract her aunt so she can get away on her excursions with Tanyon to the Big Easy.
New Orleans speeds up Emily Ann’s growth as she encounters people for whom money is more important than sex, particularly big time gangster, Frank Rydekker. She’s there to sing but many people eye her for another profitable vocation. With the help of Tanyon, her de facto guardian now, Emily Ann manages to steer clear of real trouble for a while. But when Tanyon betrays her to save his own hide, she’s forced to fend for herself in a volatile world of prostitution, booze, drug use, and some hardcore men and women ready to use and abuse her.
It’s a hard story. But what comes through so wonderfully in all this is the first-person voice of Emily Ann. Nothing’s held back; no self-consciousness. While her unbridled and indiscriminate sexual thoughts might give pause to some readers, they shouldn’t, because there is no hint of gratuitousness. Emily Ann’s immaturity keeps her perspective so natural, ironic, and even humorous. Sad too, such as how she struggles with her feelings for her mother when Emily Ann visits her in jail:
Raising a child had never occupied a foremost spot on whatever agenda guided Mama’s life. I reckon in her eyes motherhood appeared as one of those strange abstract paintings that mostly confuse folks as to the artist’s intentions. All those whispers of “She’ll grow into it” faded like worthless cobwebs by my tenth year, when the woman still showed no interest in helping me along. And I ain’t even mad at her, neither. Some women just ain’t meant for mothering.
I only wish she hadn’t taken Papa away.
The mix of characters is another terrific aspect of this novel. Many would be unlikeable in real life but their self-serving actions are understandable in the context of their situations. We pull for Emily Ann but we kind of get those who intend her harm, or at least we can’t hate them. They are what they are, very much in the Flannery O’Connor sense.
But not everyone is out to do harm to our heroine. She develops good connections with various people—some of whom meet with tragic results—who provide some redemption of humanity for her.
But it’s Emily Ann who truly comes into her own. Only a tough and honestly portrayed character such as this could survive all she encounters. In The Virgin Suicides (book and film), Cecilia declares to the physician who stitches up her wrists after her attempted suicide: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” The author of this novel, Beem Weeks, obviously is not a 13-year-old girl either, but he sure narrates convincingly as one.
Jazz Baby is intense, raw, erotic, violent, and often uncomfortably sensuous, which makes it so different from To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye . But like those classics, the protagonist is fresh and compelling, her story brilliantly conveyed. One of the most accomplished self-published works I’ve read.
I recently so effusively praised Beem Weeks’s Jazz Baby historical novel to a group of already-appreciating fans that several challenged me to list five simple reasons I keep it handy for occasional reference and reread. Okay, sure:
5) SETTING: The authenticity and vividness of Prohibition-era south from rural Mississippi to the Storyville underbelly of New Orleans is so true and fascinating that I’m grateful for the chance to experience so personally. The world of gangsters and speakeasies and flappers and hooch-mongers feels Disney-depicted in movies; it’s scary and dangerous and wondrous in Jazz Baby.
4) STORY: Coming of age? Check—but nowadays when burgeoning teens revel in declaring their most intimate personas through social media, Emily can’t help but step back and wonder, then dare venture into real situations that challenge her to overcome obstacles even as thriving yields to surviving.
3) THEME: Thirteen is too young to face losing everything and everybody, especially in an era with no societal support. It’s easy to armchair advise her—until the choices aren’t so easy, and we must admit she’ll need to figure out who she is before anything can make sense. Especially notable is the unflinching exploration of her budding sensuality, a daring exploration that nowadays might be celebrated, but which then and there might well get her killed. Emily’s story deftly pinpoints that elusive intersection between creative ambition and intimate indulgence, an algorithm that few of us so keenly observe, let alone understand.
2) CHARACTER: Weeks has created one of those rare characters who is elusive yet indelible. The more we understand her, the deeper we explore her complexities, the more we wonder and marvel. That her transition is accelerated by the whims of circumstance and fate makes it all the more exhilarating to ride with her. Several astute readers have cited comparisons, nearly all agreeing she is another Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn navigating an adult world where the youngster increasingly fails to fit.
1) VOICE: Ah, the narrative voice, the element that pushes Jazz Baby into my skybox list of best-bests: Emily narrates her own story in the first person, and we can hear her, a faceted-but-simple Mississippi girl who lets us intrude on her thoughts, not just speaking the way a girl of her station would, but showing us how she thinks. Her quirky diction and syntax, the wry observations, those heartfelt expressions of emotion—these render Emily so alive that she lingers in our thoughts well beyond the last page of her story. Not since the first-person narratives of Barbara Kingsolver have I so admired a writer finessing the voice of a youngster brave enough to speak her mind.
With only one novel so far, but lots of short stories at http://www.freshinkgroup.com, http://www.readwave.com/beem.weeks/, and other sites, Weeks is an emerging writer who with Jazz Baby has already arrived. Five quick points don’t do this novel justice. I envy any readers who get to experience it for the first time, while I eagerly look forward to Weeks’s next.
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Stephen Geez, Editor, Fresh Ink Group;
Author of Papala Skies, What Sara Saw, and more;
Creator of GeezWriter How-to.