The Jazz Cage
Written by: Ray Chen Smith
Synopsis: It is 1924—sixty years after the South’s victory in the Civil War.
Frank McCluey, bounty hunter for the mob, is sent to help out a wealthy Virginian bootlegger. Frank’s job: track down two female slaves who’ve run away from the millionaire.
But the mob has made a bad choice. Instead of capturing the women, Frank decides to help them escape to Canada, his mission now aided by the pint-sized but steel-willed runaway Della and the outlawed Underground Railroad.
Soon Della and Frank become the target of slave catchers, cops, gangsters, and most chilling of all, a Confederate agent nicknamed the Hound for his ability to always sniff out and kill his prey
Set in an alternate 1920s America where the South won the Civil War and seceded from the North, the Jazz Cage offers a dynamic tale of secrets, mobsters, and race relations.
The secession both changes everything and nothing. Arnold Rothstein is still a big name in the underworld, jazz still plays and the twenties still roar but, and this is a pretty big but, America is divided in two and an entire group of people are subjugated and refused the most basic of rights. This changes everything, even for those in the "free" north, and above all else, this book provides a chilling alternative look at what could have been. And while I'm not American, this change has a knock-on effect - if America was divided, would they have joined WWII? If they had, would they have the same power? Would the South have joined the allies or the axis? Would racial segregation and inequality have ever ended? How would this affect other countries who have had their own issues with inequality? Would America have gone to the moon? Would the Cold War have happened? The Vietnam war? Would a black man ever be made president? Sure, these issues aren't actually raised, as such, in the book but they are implicit the second history was shifted and the ramifications add weight to a story that otherwise is much narrower in scope.
The book is paced fairly well, delivering past glimpses into their lives only when necessary to uncover another dimension to the character. When we're first introduced to the three protagonists, Frank, Cece and Della, their characters seem fairly prosaic. Frank works for the mob, and understandably seems to be lacking the capacity for basic emotions or empathy, unless to do with the young and impetuous Isaac, who rarely leaves his side. He seems tired, bored and unable to muster a single care for anyone else. Della and Cece are both escaped slaves, Della is strong and independent and fiercely protective of the young and vulnerable Cece, who, through systematic abuse and trauma, has the emotional capacity of a child. However as the book continues you learn that none of them are quite so easy to define. All three have pasts which have lead them to build walls around themselves, to hide their true selves away from further harm. As the story continues with the three of them together, they struggle behind their individual walls, wondering whether it's safe to lower the gangway or if, like everyone else they've ever met, this new travelling companion(s) is going to take advantage and lead them to ruin.
It all comes down, in the end, to trust. If you're a slave who has spent your whole life being abused and lied to by white men, how can you truly trust the pudgy white guy who says he can get you to Canada? And when a mobster who is hired to capture you and take you back to your owner, how can you ever believe that he wants to help you? And if you were always closed off to the world, until a chance meeting with a captivating and wilful woman changed everything and then left too soon, would you be trusting of any feelings that might begin to bubble below the surface? Letting down the walls, trusting, believing that when people say something they actually mean it, it's all symptomatic of this alternate world and the environment they've been forced to live in.
The book explores all of this as Frank, Della and Cece struggle to make their way up to Canada. With the disgruntled slave owner, the mob, the police and their lack of trust working against them, the three protagonists take one hell of a ride. It's packed with action, adventure, humour and it's thought-provoking. It isn't the perfect book, but it has all the ingredients for a good book and Ray Chen Smith mixes them together just about right.