About the Book
With the help of sixty-year-old black jazz man Lucius, Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American woman and aspiring jazz singer in Chicago, finds her way toward dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the dying of Sister Michaeline, her voice coach, jazz mentor, and only guide through the bedlam of her childhood.
Mary Kaye’s neighbor, Judge Engelmann, introduced her to the work of James Baldwin and the nuns exposed her to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person Mary Kaye comes to really know. They bond over Sister Michaeline’s untimely death. Over time, Lucius helps Mary Kaye launch her career as a singer in his jazz band. He also gives her Sister Michaeline’s diary from her early cloistered years, saying it was the nun’s wish. In reading the diary and in conversations with Lucius and Judge Engelmann, Mary Kaye discovers disillusioning aspects and secrets of her beloved mentor.
This is Mary Kaye’s coming-of-age story as she weighs her options based on the diary, her faith, and her music, set against the background of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. It is entirely a work of fiction, but in today’s political climate one could imagine something similar becoming real.
“Carney’s vivid and spellbinding descriptions of the characters made me feel as if I were there with them. I seldom cry when reading, but this book moved me so much that I did, especially when Carney pondered the question about not only what we owe ourselves, but also what we owe our children. The reading experience will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended.” — Historical Novels Review
“Carney takes on a great deal in this novel. She weaves together the coming-of-age story of a spunky teenager in trouble, the limited options for women in mid-twentieth century, the internal religious life of a nun with a painful past, and the possibly politically-motivated killing of activist nuns, all in the context of the musical and racial culture of the time. For the most part, the author handles these several themes with grace, maintaining a comfortable pace even when digging into uncomfortable subjects.” — Mom Egg Review
“A musical coming of age story lies at the heart of Blackbird Blues’ meditation on race, religion, and gender in midwestern America. At a time of personal crisis in the early 1960s, teenaged singer Mary Kaye struggles to free herself from the orbit of an arch conservative Catholic family. Caught between the pull of a convent’s regimented life and her discovery of the expressive freedom of jazz, her muse leads her across racial lines in Chicago’s nightclubs, embroiling her in a web of intimate relationships. The story’s surprising twists and turns build steadily to its deeply-affecting climax—like a masterful jazz performance itself. As Blackbird Blues is true to the sounds of jazz, it is true to the sacrifices of love, family, and community made by individuals who find one another in the jazz world.” — Paul Berliner, Author of Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation
“This is an absorbing novel that proves on page after page that what we do affects others. Jean Carney deftly recreates the summer of 1963 as lived by a talented, devout young white woman who chafes at her limited options, and becomes increasingly aware of racial injustice. With graceful language and engaging and complicated characters, Blackbird Blues gives us a portrait of a time and place that makes us examine our own era. Carney writes with elegance and authority, whether she takes us inside a convent, a Chicago jazz club, an illegal abortion clinic, or a young woman’s heart. Like The Bell Jar, but more communal and publicly aware.” — S.L. Wisenberg
“Jean Carney has written a masterful novel. She has the rare capacity to combine almost surgically precise prose with warm and compassionate understanding of human misery and spunk. Blackbird Blues made me see, taste, smell, and touch the world in which Mary Kaye, Maureen, and Lucius lived, with all their fears, desires, regrets, and contradictions, as if they were my own. Reading Blackbird Blues is a powerful experience. It left me with a greater sense of hope and a more sympathetic attention to despair. It will stay with me for a long time.” — Stefania Tutino, Professor of History, University of California, Los Angeles and author of Uncertainty in Post-Reformation Catholicism: A History of Probabilism
“Blackbird Blues portrays an early-60s world on the cusp of radical change—racial, social, sexual—with deep insight into the cross-currents of the era. It intertwines the travails of Mary Kaye, a young woman questioning the depth of her religious commitment, with those of Sister Michaeline, her free-spirited ideal and mentor, the prizefighter-turned-musician Lucius, his imprisoned son Benny, the members of Mary Kaye’s large and chaotic family, and other memorable figures. Blackbird Blues’ graceful plot and spare style evoke the existential complexities of these haunting characters and the times in which they lived with poignancy and power.” — Zachary S. Schiffman, author of The Birth of the Past