Oleander City

Blackstone. Jun. 2022. 250p. ISBN 9798200831166. $27.99. F
Bondurant bases his novel on the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history—the category-four hurricane that destroyed Galveston Island, TX, in September 1900. An intense story using vivid scenes of survivors battling thousands of corpses and the stench of death, it evolves through three points of view: Hester, a fictional six-year-old orphan who survives the storm; Diana, the Red Cross’s fictional right-hand woman to Clara Barton; and the real-life Jewish boxer, Joe Choynski, who comes to the island for an exhibition fight against local Black boxer, Jack Johnson, to raise funds for relief efforts. We see the images of destruction through the eyes of Hester—bodies hanging from trees, body parts jutting from the sand; the magnitude of the Red Cross’s mission embodied by Diana, wading through mud and human remains to help the homeless and injured; and Chrysanthemum Joe’s fight for racial justice, using his boxing skills to demand human dignity. When the Ku Klux Klan attempt to rid the island of “undesirables,” the fight for survival becomes even more urgent.
VERDICT Bondurant masterfully entwines haunting imagery, humanity at its best and worst, and factual historical events into an examination of racism, sexism, and white privilege that is just as relevant today as it was in 1900.
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