• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall

I appreciated learning about various key players in Black Bottom life, and I absolutely adored the vivid details Randall offered about everyday life during different eras, but the fifty-two sections and rambling pace of the book left me feeling unmoored.

“...I’ve known women who could argue the paint off a wall and didn’t dream of law. I’ve seen girls who got raped, blamed themselves, not the man, then got talked into thinking sex was evil and they were dirty. And I have also seen women driving Cadillac cars wearing furs who have never voted.

That’s what I set out to change at the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theatre. Autonomy, ambition, renewal, pride, and creativity are the five basic positions we teach.”

Through the somewhat fictionalized voice of Ziggy, a real-life key player in the storied Detroit neighborhood of Black Bottom, Randall offers short sections about fifty-two mostly real-life characters who influenced the area over a period of decades. The structure and tributes are based on Catholic Saints Day books, and Randall is setting each scene with rich detail.

I appreciated the book's highlighting of various key players in Black Bottom life, and I adored the details Randall offered about place, dress, food, and everyday life during different eras.

I found this Ziggy take on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the brief summary of his own life's mission particularly interesting:

“King doesn’t preach as I would like to hear him on how we treat each other and ourselves. His mind is focused on how the ofays treat us. He works one side of the street; I work the other. King doesn’t let himself get tired. Me, I’m tired of thinking about how white folks treat us, and that is why all year I work to create performances for an all-Black world.”

But the pace of the book felt distractingly rambling to me. The book is structured as many sections of Ziggy's storytelling, so some of the meandering felt appropriate (if sometimes jarring). The book is made up of fifty-two relatively short chapters, which necessitates hustling along from story to story, but even within each section, it seemed like Ziggy the narrator was jumping from thought to thought in a way that left me feeling unmoored. The frequency of pithy remarks, zingers, and succinct rules of life added to the zigzagging, shifting tone.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

My book club heard Alice Randall speak last year at the virtual Verse & Vino, our local library foundation's annual fundraising event. We like to add books by some of the authors we hear to our reading list for the coming year. (That's how we ended up reading Kevin Wilson's unique Nothing to See Here and Alice Hoffman's The World That We Knew (featured in the Greedy Reading List Six Great Stories about Brave Women During World War II) last year, and that's how we came to read Black Bottom Saints this year.)

The book also includes a recipe for a cocktail inspired by each person featured in Ziggy's account. That's fifty-two cocktails, if you're counting. And I can vouch for the bourbon-based Natchez Belle cocktail listed in the book; my amazing book club friend Sally made them for our last meeting, and they were great!