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A Memoir

A-The Grace of SilenceWhat started as a proposed national dialogue on race in the wake of President Obama's election soon veered into much more personal territory when Michele Norris, a journalist and cohost of NPR's All Things Considered, began to interview her own family members. Although The Grace of Silence is Norris's first book, she has written for the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.

The Topic: While exploring her Minneapolis childhood and family's history against the larger legacy of race in 20th-century America, Michele Norris unearths long-buried family secrets: her beloved grandmother, a dignified and exceptionally intelligent matriarch, had made a living pretending to be Aunt Jemima, and her mild-mannered, conscientious father had been shot in the leg by a white police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. Though Norris understands her family's choice to employ "amnesia [as] a coping skill," when her family buried these experiences to avoid disillusioning future generations, her family's descendants, struggling with identities and experiences of their own, have paid a heavy price. "What I did not know until I began this project," explains Norris, "was that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents' silence."
Pantheon. 208 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307378767

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"What started as strict reportage turned into The Grace of Silence, a deeply personal reflection on what her parents and grandparents did and did not tell her about her history and identity as a black woman. ... The result is a fresh and candid reflection on this most important conversation." Elizabeth Foy Larsen

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The Grace of Silence is a powerful and heartbreaking read. ... How far have we come as a nation, after all? Grace doesn't answer that question, but it sparks a fascinating conversation--which, after reading it, you can and should continue." Carmela Ciuraru

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In the annals of African-American history, space ought to be made for The Grace of Silence and its authoritative grasp of memoir and history. ... If anything is missing from this rich account of family history, it is how Norris' family's experiences shaped her own views about race." Lynne Varner

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The result is a peculiar combination of anecdotes, reporting, reminiscences, personal essays, history, and sleuthing--a cathartic patchwork that may ultimately have been more satisfying for the writer to produce than the reader to consume. ... Recording the lives of human beings is a worthwhile enterprise in any case, and it's especially effective in grounding conversations about race and history in real experience." Kelly Nuxoll

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Norris displays strong reporting skills and an eye for detail as she renders perfectly a familiar slice of middle-class Midwestern life for black families in the 1960s, when every household had a Bible, a World Book Encyclopedia and two parents constantly admonishing us to dress well, speak properly, act right. ... But its flaw is that Norris is unable to confidently ascribe meaning to much of what she discovers." Sandy Banks

Critical Summary

An absorbing, authoritative, and painfully honest "American saga" (Seattle Times), Norris's family history explores middle-class African Americans' pursuit of the American dream in the mid-20th century. Thanks to exceptional reporting skills and a sharp eye for detail, Norris brings these thoughtful, complex men and women poignantly to life as she chronicles an important chapter of American history--the quiet, day-to-day lives of average citizens--that is often overshadowed by the grand personalities and achievements of the civil rights era. Although the Christian Science Monitor considered the narrative uneven and the Los Angeles Times questioned Norris's ability to fully grasp the significance of her conclusions, both agreed that the book still wields considerable power. Eloquently written and carefully researched, Norris's memoir will resonate with readers.