Skip to content

The Book

Blackbird Blues is a novel of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. Voices of two women tell their stories: Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American aspiring jazz singer struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, and the 1940s diary entries of Sister Michaeline, Mary Kaye’s jazz mentor and guide through the bedlam of Mary Kaye’s childhood.

At Sister’s wake after a car crash, Mary Kaye meets Lucius Claremont, a sixty-year-old black bass player who had been Sister’s lover and father of their estranged son Benny before Sister left them for the convent. Lucius gives Mary Kaye Sister’s diary, saying it was Sister’s wish.

Mary Kaye had been reading James Baldwin and following the civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person she comes to really know. They bond over their loss, the diary, and visits to Benny in prison, where Sister started a ministry without telling him she was his mother.

Having killed a boxing opponent in his youth, Lucius disapproves of abortion, which at any rate is illegal in 1963. But he is supportive when Mary Kaye weighs her options, feeling that she is not yet equipped to raise a child.

With Mary Kaye’s involvement Lucius and Benny develop a genuine relationship. Benny confides that he had confronted Sister Michaeline with his hunch that she was his mother, so that when she drove off in a tizzy he blamed himself for her death. “I have to find a way to live with feeling that her death was my fault,” says Benny. Mary Kaye ponders, “What do we owe our children? What do we owe ourselves?”

LouisArmstrong

Advance Praise

Paul Berliner

Author of Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, University of Chicago Press 1994

A musical coming of age story lies at the heart of Blackbird Blues’ meditation on race, religion, and gender in midwestern America. At a time of personal crisis in the early 1960s, teenaged singer Mary Kaye struggles to free herself from the orbit of an archconservative Catholic family. Caught between the pull of a convent’s regimented life and her discovery of the expressive freedom of jazz, her muse leads her across racial lines in Chicago’s nightclubs, embroiling her in a web of intimate relationships. The story’s surprising twists and turns build steadily to its deeply-affecting climax—like a masterful jazz performance itself. As Blackbird Blues is true to the sounds of jazz, it is true to the sacrifices of love, family, and community made by individuals who find one another in the jazz world.

S.L. Wisenberg

Author of Holocaust Girls, Bison Books 2006

Blackbird Blues is an absorbing novel that proves on page after page that what we do affects others. Jean Carney deftly recreates the summer of 1963 as lived by a talented, devout young white woman who chafes at her limited options, and becomes increasingly aware of racial injustice. With graceful language and engaging and complicated characters, the novel gives us a portrait of a time and place that makes us examine our own era. Carney writes with elegance and authority, whether she takes us inside a convent, a Chicago jazz club, an illegal abortion clinic, or a young woman's heart. Like The Bell Jar, but more communal and publicly aware.

http://slwisenberg.blogspot.com, slwisenberg@sbcglobal.net, wisenberg@northwestern.edu

Stefania Tutino

Author of Uncertainty in Post-Reformation Catholicism: A History of Probabilism, Oxford University Press 2018

Jean Carney has written a masterful novel. She has the rare capacity to combine almost surgically precise prose with warm and compassionate understanding of human misery and spunk. Blackbird Blues made me see, taste, smell, and touch the world in which Mary Kaye, Maureen, and Lucius lived, with all their fears, desires, regrets, and contradictions, as if they were my own. Reading Blackbird Blues is a powerful experience. It left me with a greater sense of hope and a more sympathetic attention to despair. It will stay with me for a long time.

Zachary S. Schiffman

Author of The Birth of the Past, Johns Hopkins University Press 2011

Blackbird Blues  portrays an early-60s world on the cusp of radical change—racial, social, sexual—with deep insight into the cross-currents of the era. It intertwines the travails of Mary Kaye, a young woman questioning the depth of her religious commitment, with those of Sister Michaeline, her free-spirited teacher and mentor, the prizefighter-turned-musician Lucius, his imprisoned son Benny, the members of Mary Kaye’s large and chaotic family, and other memorable figures. Blackbird Blues' graceful plot and spare style evoke the existential complexities of these haunting characters and the times in which they lived with poignancy and power.

RodneyWhitaker'sBass
Scroll To Top