With a journalist’s respect for facts and a novelist’s imagination, Geraldine Brooks has proven herself a master of historical fiction. She won the Pulitzer for March, her character study of the father in Alcott’s Little Women, and has vividly evoked the early United States in Caleb’s Crossing and told the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah in People of the Book. In her fifth novel, The Secret Chord (Viking, $27.95), Brooks takes the charismatic David of legend and gives us the flawed, contradictory man: this is David as viewed by the central figures in his life, including his wives, children, generals, and his greatest rival and friend, Jonathan. But the pivotal voice here is that of Nathan, who may in fact have chronicled the actual David. Though any Book of Nathan has long been lost, Brooks masterfully recreates what it might have told us. In the process she complicates received images of her subject, juxtaposing his violent acts with his capacity for benevolence, his artistic temperament with his ruthlessness. She also expands on the roles women played in his life, and delves into his emotional response to Jonathan’s death. Finally, Brooks underscores the significance of these ancient figures by following her compelling narrative with a personal note about what prompted her to write this novel in the first place.
David Maraniss grew up in Detroit, and in his eighth book the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, biographer, and author of the classic study of America during the Vietnam War years, They Marched into Sunlight, profiles some of the better days this struggling city has seen. Once in a Great City (Simon & Schuster, $32.50) takes us back to 1962. Between that fall and the spring of 1964, Detroit experienced an economic and cultural boom; from Motown’s release of recordings by riveting new performers to Ford’s production of the Mustang, from the local civil rights leaders’ involvement with planning Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington to Walter Reuther’s work on progressive labor movement reform, Detroit was setting the pulse of the nation. Maraniss brings the music and politics to life—and also shows how the shadows of a darker future were already present in the entrenched organized crime, discriminatory housing practices, and racial tensions. Throughout this sweeping American tale, Maraniss’s writing is always breathtaking.
The eponymous Empire of Sin (Crown, $26) of Gary Krist’s compelling social history is New Orleans from roughly 1890 to the 1920s. In this gripping account of vice, sex, and spectacular unsolved crimes, Krist chronicles an urban culture that developed around races and ethnicities that marked this city as distinct from others in America; New Orleans wasn’t Protestant, and it had been a major point of entry for slaves and immigrants, especially Italians, who claimed certain sectors of town for the mob. Then there was the music. Krist’s account of working-class black Storyville is also the tale of jazz, and the book includes the only photograph of the legendary Buddy Bolden and his band, whose sounds “were like Aurora Borealis.” But the party couldn’t go on forever, and New Orleans evolved from “the Sodom of the South” into an economic powerhouse, but one whose benefits remain unevenly distributed between its white and black citizens. When Louis Armstrong, New Orleans born and bred, returned to get the key of the city in 1949, he was forced to stay in a “colored hotel.” Reform has its limits and Krist has no illusions.