I’ve been an NPR listener for almost 20 years. It’s almost always what I’ve got playing in the car, and it’s often my background sound when I’m at home. I’ve probably heard Michele Norris on the radio a thousand times or more. Like most television and radio journalists, you hear them all the time, recognize their voices as much as those of your friends and family and yet you almost never know anything personal about them. That’s not usually part of journalism, whose goal is to remain as objective as possible. Journalists don’t usually put themselves in piece; they just try to tell the story for what it is.
I was intrigued with this book club pick because it takes one of my most familiar voices and it put a whole context of life behind it. As Norris explains, the idea for this memoir came to her as she was trying to capture the racial dialogue in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s inauguration. As she was encouraging this conversation to come to the surface and she listened to the stories of many American families, she uncovered her own family’s stories that had been deliberately kept from her.
Hence the title---The Grace of Silence---Her parents’ silence was their grace. By not giving new voice to these stories, they believed they gave Michele and her sisters an advantage. They withheld that which could have embittered or prejudiced their children; they chose not to burden them with that information so that their children could rise above it. The question Michele asks all these years later is was that silence necessary? Should it always have been part of the story? Could they all have achieved what they achieved with this knowledge? Would they have the same attitudes?
True to her journalist form, once Michele learns her family’s unspoken stories, she uncovers every detail possible. The first part is about her maternal grandmother’s story, who had been a traveling aunt Jemima selling pancake mix throughout the Midwest. The second is her father’s story of being shot by a white police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. As she researches these stories, she gives the reader the historical and racial context, and a true understanding of what life was like in those times and places for people of color.
At times this story is difficult to read. Racial issues are sensitive and the treatment of minorities throughout history is shameful. More than once I felt angry and sad, at times even horrified and ashamed that one human being would treat another with so little respect. And yet, Norris’s gift is that despite the heavy content of the book, in just as many places, I smiled, because she shared so many personal family stories that are familiar—stories of parents and children, siblings and neighbors and people.
I really enjoyed this book; it’s a quick read, well written, thought provoking and even entertaining. Norris’ style is down to earth and frank. The book comes off as a journey: She uncovers these stories from her family, frames them in historical context and then pieces them back into the memories she has of her parents and grandparents. The characters she meets along the way play crucial roles in the racial dialogue and she paints vivid pictures of them, too.
Crack Factor – 9.5. This book goes fast.
Tears Shed Factor 9.0. You can’t read this book and not feel. It evokes many emotions throughout.
Distraction Factor/Enrichment Factor 9.0. Even if you’ve studied racial issues and civil rights, this story is fresh. It’s rich with new material, new ideas, new perspective and it will keep the wheels turning in your mind for a long time.
Writing Skills Factor 9.875. I hope I’m not gushing too much. I’m just really awed by Michele Norris. I’ve respected her as a journalist for so many years and top of all of that, she can turn out a book as impressive as this. It’s amazing and humbling. I’m a forever fan now.
Story Telling Factor. 9.5. 98% of this book is fabulous. It moves quickly and is informative and well constructed. I do have to say at one point I got bogged down with some of the historical details and I had to skim through it. It was probably just me at the time---a quick glance back through the book and I couldn’t even find what I’d missed, so it wasn’t like it was 20 pages, probably only 3 or 4. I can’t mark her down for that, when it was probably just me being a lazy reader…
Total Rating: 9.375