Beneath the humor and attempted skullduggery of Pearl Cleage’s latest novel, Till You Hear From Me, is an undercurrent of the tensions between the old civil rights guard—those men and women Cleage calls “the warriors”—and the new generation who have memories of neither Jim Crow nor head-cracking police.
Ida B. Wells Dunbar, the sometimes narrator, represents the latter. She’s in her 30s, has exhausted herself campaigning for President Obama, and is waiting for that phone call inviting her to join the White House staff. The warriors are represented by her father, Reverend Horace Dunbar, a charismatic preacher and activist of the old school, who shocks Ida, their friends and the media with an intemperate speech in response to the dustup between then-candidate Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Waiting to pounce on this mess like a coiled rattlesnake is Wes Harper, an operator who’s willing and able—for a fee—to throw a monkey wrench into the new administration’s smoothly running machine. Wes is the son of Reverend Dunbar’s best friend Eddie Harper and even considers him a surrogate father. But money’s money. And power is power.
Cleage has great fun with her characters, especially the miscreants. Wes is not only a serviceable villain, but so is his sidekick, the slinky Toni Cassidy. As the book is a comedy and bad guys tend not to win in Cleage’s universe, she takes time to introduce us to a villagefull of colorful characters as we wait for what must happen to Wes and his fellow sharks. Ida’s still naive and idealistic—she suffered from a teenage crush on Wes, and is rightly in awe of her father. Miss Iona, earthy and elegant, has been Ida’s surrogate mother and the Reverend’s friend for many years. There’s Ida’s hilarious biological mother, a militant feminist who blames everything on the patriarchy. There’s the staunchly loyal Eddie, and Mr. Charles, whose hams and turkeys are legendary. And would State Senator Precious Hargrove’s parents have given her that name if they knew of her future job?
The action revolves, as it has in most of Cleage’s novels, around the peaceful, fictional Atlanta neighborhood of West End, and the warm-hearted folks who live there. And in the background is the not quite subliminal hum of difficult, glorious history. Till You Hear From Me is another triumph from Pearl Cleage.