In 1971, the fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon. The project promises to transform the dying factory town into a thriving economic center, with a profound effect on its residents. Sydney Stallworth steps away her law degree in order to support her husband Malachi’s dream of opening a cultural center and bookstore in the heart of their black community, Liberty Hill. Across the street, Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to frequent outbursts.
Six blocks away and across the Bellport River Bridge lies Petite Africa, a lively neighborhood, where time moves slower and residents spill from run-down buildings onto the streets. Here Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal known to locals as Drummer Man, dreams of being the next Duke Ellington, spreading his love of music and African culture across the world, even as his marriage crumbles around him and his neighborhood goes up in flames. An arsonist is on the loose. As more buildings burn, the communities are joined together and ripped apart. In Petite Africa, a struggling community fights for their homes, businesses, and culture. In Liberty Hill, others see opportunity and economic growth. As the pace of the suspicious fires pick up, the demolition date moves closer, and plans for gentrification are laid out, the residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives. “It’s a shame,” says Malachi, after a charged city council meeting, where residents of Petite Africa and Liberty Hill sit on opposing sides. “We do so much for Petite Africa. But still, we fight.”
I enjoyed The Talking Drum. So much cultural diversity made it a very vivid read. I think I enjoyed Omar’s story the most, but all of the characters were believable and powerful, as they struggled against overwhelming odds without a lot of hope or support.
The drums were a powerful thread running through the narrative, and I loved how they held everything together, echoing the message of the story.
Lisa Braxton is an essayist, short story writer, and novelist.
(Galley courtesy of Inanna Press in exchange for an honest review.)