“Till You Hear From Me” by Pearl Cleage
Ballantine, $25, 272 pages
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By Gina Webb
Ida B. Dunbar’s hard work on the Obama campaign should pay off any day now. A veteran of what was called “one of the most successful grass-roots campaigns the country has ever seen,” Ida is in Washington expecting a call offering her a plum job in the new White House.
But when her phone finally rings, instead of a voice saying, “Please hold for the president,” it’s Miss Iona, a family friend who urges Ida to come back to Atlanta right away before her father, the Rev. Horace A. Dunbar, “undoes the work of a lifetime.”
A legendary civil rights firebrand who practically invented grass-roots organizing, the Rev supported Barack Obama wholeheartedly, spearheading a drive on his behalf to register more than 100,000 new Democratic voters in Georgia. But now, something’s gone wrong.
Not only has the outspoken Rev suddenly begun to trash Obama in public, but in an interview with a reporter from “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution” that’s now running on YouTube, he manages to “insult Latinos, gays, feminists, black parents [and] the president of the United States,” all in the space of 15 minutes. He said diversity in his church has gone too far, offering bluntly, “Next thing you know, they’ll want tacos and sangria on communion Sunday.”
Or, as Miss Iona said, “He’s lost his mind.”
“Till You Hear From Me,” Pearl Cleage’s wise and funny seventh novel, takes its title from a song by Duke Ellington. “Do nothing till you hear from me,” the lyrics warn, “pay no attention to what’s been said.” Ida can’t afford to do that. If the Obama camp gets wind of the Rev’s remarks, her hoped-for job may never materialize. She has no choice but to come home, hoping to talk sense to her father.
As she descends on the West End neighborhood familiar from Cleage’s previous books, Ida’s not the only one homeward bound. Slick-talking Wes Harper, the Rev’s godson and once the object of Ida’s teenage fantasies, is also arriving in Atlanta, with as much, or more, interest in a face-to-face chat with the Rev.
Unlike Ida, who basks in the reunion with familiar faces and places, Wes doesn’t feel the love for his old hood. A highly successful “post-racial” professional without loyalty to any race, Wes has joined a “shadowy squad of saboteurs who traveled the country nonstop” disrupting Democratic events, spreading misleading information about candidates — and now, hoping to steal the Rev’s voter registration list and purge the names from the records. Encouraged by the Rev’s apparent dissatisfaction, the Party of No believes that Wes can also convince him to defect to their side.
Ida, with no idea that Wes is working against her father, thinks he could still be a candidate for her fantasies. She’s 34, unattached and willing (if only his “Mission Impossible” cellphone ringer would quit interrupting their dates!). But Cleage’s female characters have traditionally been strong, independent role models, and Ida doesn’t disappoint by spending the rest of the book in Wes’ arms. For now, her main goal is the Rev. It’s a delicate balancing act to maintain her role as dutiful daughter while convincing him that he’s in danger of losing everything he’s worked for all his life.
Equal parts Southern hospitality, history lessons and wry observations about life and love, “Till You Hear From Me” is an invitation to a West End salon in book form. Ida is the perfect host, offering lively, provocative conversations about everything from community revitalization to the history of civil rights. She urges us to read her favorite books (Alice Walker’s “Temple of My Familiar,” Langston Hughes’ “The Big Sea”). She lays the table with down-home food that’ll make your stomach growl. She likes to walk, or “ramble,” as the Rev calls it, to get out into the neighborhood, stopping in local shops, talking to people, making contact.
It’s what her father taught her: Nurture your community “house-to-house,” and change will come. Community gardens can replace crack houses. An ex-stripper can turn a notorious strip club into a flourishing burger joint. Or the first black president could call tomorrow and offer Ida a job.
She’d have to be crazy not to take it, of course, but here’s hoping Ida sticks around Atlanta — for Cleage’s next book.