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Poets Can't Sing
By Sherman Smith
The Honeysuckle Rose Hotel
(The sequel to Poets Can’t Sing)
Sadly, San Francisco, California, has the history and reputation of being a racist city. The year is 1948 and people of color are not allowed to live or work east of Van Ness Avenue. It isn't a law, it's just the way it is.
Earl and Stella Crier do not see it that way. They had been happy with their little piano bar out on the avenues until they found themselves in need of more space, so they bought an old hotel in the Tenderloin and turned it into a Private Residency for Musicians.
Earl was color blind long before he lost his sight. His love of people and the music of the era attracts an odd lot to The Honeysuckle Rose Hotel including a black trombonist, a light brown gifted songbird, a Nisei Clarinetist, another playing the bass, and a tenor saxophone player who might be the ugliest man in the world.
The hotel is not registered with the corrupt San Francisco Musician's Union which has a closed shop policy on people of color. This soon draws the wrath of the union president. Earl, Stella, and the Honeysuckle Rose Quintet will not allow the union to destroy what they love and so begins the battle to save the Honeysuckle Rose Hotel. It is a remarkable story of courage, compassion, character, and a deep determination of a blind pianist to do what is right because it is the right thing to do.
Silencing The Blues Man
By Sherman Smith
San Francisco, 1950: The residents of the Honeysuckle Rose Hotel - musicians all - are a quirky bunch each with his or her own secrets, addictions, sins of their own making, traumatic issues the world has seen fit to weigh down upon their shoulders, nightmares from the past, or dreams of things the way they ought to be. Earl Crier, a blind, bluesy crooner is their heart and soul until one day when a policeman sees a tall black man mugging a blind white man on the front step of the hotel this house of cards begins to fall. As the blues man falls silent can the Honeysuckle Rose survive?
* * * * *
Poets Can’t Sing hooked me. The Honeysuckle Rose Hotel brought my heart back to San Francisco. Silencing The Blue’s Man is pure Sherman Smith at his best. Great story, and I encourage you to read them all.
-J.R. Wells, Denver, Colorado
A Sample from the book:
HOW DOES ONE PREPARE HIMSELF TO GO TO WAR FOR A second time; one which he knows with certainty shall end his life?
Henry Akita had once saved Ivory’s life—not on the battle- field, but from the nightmares that haunted his hospital bed pushing him to the edge of the suicide cliff. Ivory had suffered for three years, nine months, and two days as a prisoner of war of the Japanese Empire. Japan lost the war. Ivory lost his will to live. He was a defeated man physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Unless he somehow rediscovered the desire to live, no matter the nightmares and pain, the doctors could do nothing more.
Ivory was sent to the veteran’s hospital in San Francisco as a wait and see patient. What the doctors could not do, an angel, a blind man, and a Jap did. Henry Akita had been the Jap— Japanese American, Nisei, war hero, and friend.
Ivory had many nightmares. Surprisingly, the one that shook him the most was the memory of his first meeting Henry. Now it was Henry who was in trouble and Ivory had no choice but to try to help.
Ivory’s nightmare always began the same way, waking on a hard earthen floor, drenched in a fever sweat, exhausted, his joints aflame, and skin screaming from the fire ants that fed on the lice that swarmed across his flesh. This is the way Ivory Burch woke most of the days he had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese.
Now his nightmares ended with his screams as he struggled to wake, his heart pounding, remembering pain so great that he
wished he were dead, fearing that on the other side of life, there is something so horrific, that he is afraid to die. There is no heaven, only hell for both the living and the dead. The Japanese had been the doormen.
The Jap soldier, outraged, smaller, though stronger than he, pinned him to the ground with a hobnailed boot, as he raised his bayonet above Ivory’s heart. There was pure hatred in his enemy’s eyes as the bayonet descended . . .
Ivory had thrashed wildly in his bedding.
“Wake up! It’s only a dream,” a voice from the other side of his nightmare said. “Wake Up!” Strong hands held him down as he fought for his life.
The bayonet raised, he could see his own reflection, his own terror, glistening in the blade.
He tried to run, his amputated leg useless as he opened his eyes, his fear beyond measure.
“Easy, fella, it’s only a dream. I’ve got you.” Henry Akita had said. Ivory’s eyes went wide as he shrieked at the sight of Henry’s Nisei face.
“Easy Ivory, it’s only a dream.”
* * * * * *
Silencing the Blues Man
reviewed by Alison McBain in Bewilderingstories.com
I grew up in the Bay Area listening to the stories from my Japanese grandmother about our family’s internment during World War II. So it was with great interest that I picked up Sherman Smith’s book, Silencing the Blues Man. It is the third in a trilogy, following Poets Can’t Sing and The Honeysuckle Rose Hotel. The book focuses on the perspective of several characters who have survived the atrocities of WWII, and it explores how Americans from different races and cultural backgrounds cope with the aftermath of war once they return to civilian life
The novel is set in San Francisco, beginning about a decade after the end of the war and concluding near the beginning of the Korean War. From after WWII, the characters started out as strangers to each other, but there are several things that bring them together. Aside from the female characters, they are all veterans, and they are all misfits in one way or another, whether it’s because they were different prior to the war or changed because of it.
They live in the Honeysuckle Rose Hotel, and they love music. Some of them are extremely talented musicians, maybe the best in the entire city. Some of them simply love to listen to the others play. But all of them are drawn together to support each other and make up an impromptu family, since most of them no longer have any family of their own.
Although there is a fair amount of backstory, the main meat of the book really starts on one exceptional night when the tensions between the main characters come to a head. Two of the band members have been called back to war, and this is their farewell night. They make music like they never have before, but the evening is not conflict-free, nor is the morning after. When events go really awry, only the strength of the characters and their connection to each other, shared through their music, will help see them through the tragedies brought to light during the day.
The story contains a diverse set of characters. Among them is blind Earl, who owns the hotel and is like a father-figure/hero to most of the tenants. Then there is Henry Akita, a Japanese-American man who has to face prejudice because of the anti-Japanese sentiment from the war but is accepted wholeheartedly into the group. And Les, a black man who plays trombone better than any other musician in the district.
Rosemary plays bass and cello, but she is jealous that she’ll never be the band leader even though she knows, in her own heart, that she’s the best player in the quintet. And Michael, who is callously nicknamed “Beauty” because he’s been ugly from birth. Another prominent character is Sy, an old Jewish man who lost his home when his wife died, but plays his violin like a gift.
Although there are many more individuals in the book, there isn’t space enough to list them all, the people portrayed are well-rounded, containing quirks and foibles enough to make them feel like more than stock characters.
There was some beautiful description throughout the narrative, and I always enjoy reading a novel that contains a lot of historical detail. The characters have multi-layered relationships that draw the reader in.
Some of the writing is quite beautiful. For example:
She looked up from a sheet of music and smiled, not at an old man dressed in rags, who looked as if God might have forgotten him. No, she saw an old man, with special gifts, whom God was allowing to live just a little longer, his gifts too great to be taken away from this earth one second too early. She whispered one word. It was please, and was as welcoming as the best dawn he had ever risen to, and as hopeful as the first moment he had first seen his wife, the love of his life, and she him. (p. 55)
Until that moment Oscar’s poetry had always been separate from the music. Occasionally Mollie had dusted his words with her piano notes as soft as tiny raindrops on a forest floor. When Oscar first heard Sy’s violin he heard each note and knew if done right the poet in him would finally sing. (pp. 60-61)
I liked the characters and the struggle they go through, and the ending was bittersweet enough to complement the complex people found within the book. I found myself wondering what happens to the characters after the book ends; the outlook at the ending is positive, but not necessarily conclusive, nor does it have to be. I always enjoy stories that don’t spell out a “happy ever after,” but give the beginnings of one and allow the reader to fill in the gaps.
I haven’t read the first two books, so I’m looking forward to picking them up and seeing how the story begins.
* * * * * * *
Earl could taste the change in weather but couldn’t quite determine the storm’s direction. His voice softened, his fingers lighter on the keys, as he continued to sing: That’s Stella by starlight, And not a dream, My heart and I agree, She’s everything on this earth to me.
After a moment he stopped singing. As the storm blew close he continued to play bits and pieces at random. The music moved like a spiderweb stirred by a sudden breeze, it changed like a leaf twisting as it fell to the ground. And fell silent.
- A stunning read!
Charles Hartley - Ca.
"Shortly after "Silencing the Blues man" was released I wrote an additional chapter allowing one of the characters to find closure.
A gifted author and fan, Jeanette always liked Oscar best, so I wrote and sent a copy to her - and to my surprise she recorded it.
Here it is."
- Sherman Smith