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Books

Short Takes

‘Color Blind,’ ‘The Mermaid of Brooklyn,’ and ‘What My Mother Gave Me’

‘Color Blind’ by Tom Dunkel.

‘Color Blind’ by Tom Dunkel.

COLOR BLIND: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line

By Tom Dunkel

Atlantic Monthly, 345 pp., illustrated, $25

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A dozen years before Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a semi-pro team out of Bismarck, N.D., boasted a racially mixed roster that included Negro League legends Satchel Paige, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, and Quincy Troupe (later Trouppe). The team, known as the Bismarck Churchills, after their car-dealer owner Neil Churchill, would win the 1935 semi-pro national tournament in Wichita, Kan.; after that, its stars found themselves wondering whether the big leagues would ever call (Troupe and Paige each got a chance, but decades after their prime). Changing times would soon dry up the rich tradition of small-town and rural ball, and before long, integration would enrich the national pastime as surely as it decimated the Negro Leagues. In “Color Blind,” Tom Dunkel revisits this landscape to spin a tale as fantastic as it is true, as American as racism and baseball.

In the 1930 Census, Bismarck claimed 11,000 residents, 46 of them black (one of whom had moved to North Dakota as a domestic servant in the home of the family of General Custer). The nearest big league baseball teams were 750 miles away, in Chicago and St. Louis. But the prairie was wild for baseball (future Hall of Famer Bob Feller said of his days playing in Iowa, “[e]very little jerk town had a team”), and local auto magnate Churchill decided to get the best he could for Bismarck’s, even if that meant breaking an unwritten color line. Dunkel’s extensive research shows — there’s enough detail here to satisfy the most rabid fan — and his portraits of Troupe, Paige, and Churchill are lively and warm. But the book’s most surprising character, to outsiders anyway, is this hardy, tough region, a place of towns “so small and so fragile that they got blown away by the Depression or shriveled to almost nothing in its aftermath.”

The Mermaid of Brooklyn

By Amy Shearn

Touchstone, 368 pp., paperback, $14.99

Jenny Lipkin and her husband, Harry, are raising two little girls in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Harry works at the family’s candy business, while Jenny stays home to care for their daughters and mourns her former life as a magazine editor. The couple’s problems are “excruciatingly average,” Jenny realizes, but they are excruciating. When Harry goes out for cigarettes and never comes home, Jenny’s emotional state wobbles and then cracks; trying to kill herself one night, she meets a mermaid — actually a rusalka, a figure familiar to Jenny from the Slavic folktales that formed the basis of her mocked and unused graduate degree — who takes up residence within Jenny’s body.

Amy Shearn’s second novel charmingly blends the magical with the real. She is especially acute in her gimlet-eyed rendering of Jenny’s tribe of Park Slope mothers. The women’s shared exhaustion, their boredom, their instant intimacy, and insecure competitiveness — it all feels stultifying and inescapable until Jenny sees it alongside the rusalka, who reminds her “in her slightly cranky way that this was nothing new, that my everyday struggles held within them an echo of the legendary.” Funny, fearless, and unexpectedly moving, this modern fairy tale is, in a word, enchanting.

WHAT MY MOTHER GAVE ME: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most

Edited by Elizabeth Benedict

Algonquin, 289 pp., paperback, $15.95

A gift’s meaning can change as time passes, as its recipient grows, as its giver ages and dies. Gifts from mothers to daughters — advice, warning, censure, promise, comfort, memory — carry extra freight, depending on the relationship between them. Tangible objects appear among the motherly bequests in these essays, collected by novelist Elizabeth Benedict: a cake pan, a blouse, a recipe, a drawing of a dog. In other essays, the gift is an experience, a brilliant piece of advice, or an example of how to thrive in a hostile or indifferent world. Margo Jefferson sees her mother’s love of fine clothing, even before the fashion industry acknowledged black women, as an act that forged “[a]rmor that shielded me from inferiority.” For Mary Gordon, whose mother eschewed traditional feminine trappings, the gift was a trip on New York’s Circle Line: “An adventure on the water. The sight of the glittering city. The possibility of the greater world.”

In this type of collection, some essays are better than others. A few of them seem a little undercooked, or rushed, or formulaic. But the best convey the elements of mystery and misdirection that so often accompany mothers’ gifts to their daughters. In Karen Karbo’s powerful “White Gloves and Party Manners,” an etiquette book in an Easter basket at first elicits confusion, then rage at a mother who’d “had the gall to die, just as I was getting around to telling her I wished she was dead.” After years pass and family secrets reveal themselves, Karbo revises her feelings about both the book and the woman who gave it to her.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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