In her second collection, entitled The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories, Danielle Evans shares six new stories and the titular novella. Stories starring black women, or the long-lasting effects of racism on black women, Evans’s book sounded compelling. But, right away I realized I wasn’t connecting with her work. According to the publisher, “Evans zooms in on particular moments and relationships in her characters’ lives.” But I felt she zoomed out too far.
For instance, in “Alcatraz” a white soldier is wrongfully accused of murder and imprisoned at Alcatraz in 1920. When he’s released, he returns to New York, gets married, and has two daughters. One of those daughters leaves and later returns after giving birth to a black baby. According to neighbors, the woman was ashamed that she brought a black child into a white family. The white grandparents raise the black girl, who later has a daughter of her own. This daughter — the great-granddaughter of the prisoner — is the narrator. We’re about a mile from the heart of the story with this young narrator.
The black woman spends her adult life trying to secure the benefits her grandfather deserved. She wants to set the record straight: her grandfather was wrongfully imprisoned and thus denied life-long financial military benefits. However, this is not the story of his Alcatraz in 1920 and her struggle for decades to secure his benefits. Instead, we’re given snippets of this woman’s history in between pages of the narrator organizing a family field trip to Alcatraz, which includes her mother and the mother’s white cousin. The cousins have not seen each other in years because the white woman’s mother felt it was wrong for her to play with a black child.
Because Evans approaches this story through the perspective of someone so removed from the prisoner, it feels watered down to me. What is at stake? Is the point that the cousins are reunited? It doesn’t seem to be, based on the low importance put on the touristy trip to Alcatraz. Had Evans zoomed in on the life of the grandfather, his prison nightmares, the white daughter showing up with a black baby girl and abandoning her, that baby girl growing up in a white family haunted by a wrongful conviction, her spending decades trying to make it right . . . that was where the story was interesting to me. The narrator felt of little importance, which is not a good sign.
The titular novella, The Office of Historical Corrections, had an interesting premise, especially in the age of Trump: the creation of a government department of people who ensure factual accuracy in an effort to improve the intellectual health of the American public:
The congresswoman envisioned a national network of fact-checkers and historians, a friendly citizen army devoted to making the truth so accessible and appealing it could not be ignored.
The thrust of the novella is a plaque in Wisconsin that needs fact checked. A black man moved to the state in the 1930s, a time when there were no black communities there, opens a business, and then is murdered when a white mob burns the business to the ground with him in it. One fact-checker, a black woman who worked for the Office of Historical Corrections, was fired because she was not fixing incorrect information, just adding to factual statements that leaned toward social justice statements. For instance, including the names of the people who are guilty of burning down the store in 1937 using photographic evidence in which the mob gleefully celebrate their deed. But when another black woman in the agency named Cassie learns the plaque is incorrect because the black man may not have been killed that night, that he escaped that night and disappeared, she heads to Wisconsin to get the facts straight for the public.
The story of the man and his business is interesting, and yet Evens zooms out too far again. Several pages are devoted to Cassie’s boyfriend in D.C., a black man named Daniel, in whom she does not seem interested. Then, we read about Cassie’s ex-boyfriend, a white liberal in Wisconsin named Nick who is going to meet her when she arrives. The ex is more interesting for what he tells readers about her:
. . . with Daniel, I’d had to learn again how to watch a man move through the world and calibrate his every step to be disarming, how to watch a many worry about his body and conditions under which someone might take his any gesture the wrong way. . . . In Nick’s room, in his platform bed, under the locally made quilt, I in fact slept very well.
Based on the skin color of her lover, the woman changes how she navigates the world, how protected she feels in it. Does that mean we need to know so much about Daniel, including several pages devoted to buying him a birthday cake? Not really. He’s barely part of the story. We needed to zoom in to really get that tension between how the woman is insulated by a white boyfriend, which juxtaposes how the black man in 1937 was attacked by a white mob.
Again and again, each story made me pause and think, “Wait, why are we so distant from the crux of the story, the interesting parts?” The one that did keep me thinking was “Boys Go to Jupiter,” in which a white college student takes a picture of herself in a bikini that looks like the confederate flag during summer break. When she returns to campus in the fall, black students have questions about their safety around her, and the local free speech group defends her choice, though they don’t agree with it. I didn’t come away with an obvious message, which made me think harder about people’s rights vs. their responsibilities, thus making “Boys Go to Jupiter” the most memorable of the collection. To be fair, this story also had a number of extraneous passages, weaving in threads of other themes that made the story feel a bit fluffed, too.
Overall, The Office of Historical Corrections would have benefited from getting closer to the more engaging aspects of each story, choosing a narrator close to the heart of the story, and removing themes and backstory that didn’t pull the plot together or advance it.
*I want to thank Riverhead Books for providing a copy free of change through the Goodreads giveaway feature. All thoughts are my own and not affected by their generosity.