Book Review: The Black Ledger by @TheDGAllen
The Black Ledger is a thoughtful book because it holds a mirror up to societal imperfections without attempting to mask those imperfections. Racism is an ageless, insidious cancer embedded in the history of the world. The Black Ledger examines racism through the eyes of characters implored to question the differences between people not with disdain but with understanding.
Through his prose, Allen doesn’t presume to heal racism and put a bandaid over its wounds. No author can be expected to succeed at so Herculean a task. Rather, what Allen invites readers to do is to travel along with his characters: to think, to become angry, and to cry. To experience outrage and to experience disgust and to experience pain at the tragedies and injustices driving this narrative become, I would argue, the welcomed burdens of the reader. For these emotions mean that we are willing to open up an honest dialogue instead of avoiding a subject that makes us uncomfortable.
The 1980s Chicago offers the backdrop for The Black Ledger. The story is mostly told through the character of Ron Pickles, a young white man who takes a job as a ledger agent at Unified Insurance. Ron expects this work as a ledger agent to be but a way station towards his destination towards becoming an electrician. Admittedly, his career aspiration couldn’t be more different than the job he needs to put food on the table for his wife and child. But once Ron receives a coveted letter from the electricians’ union and begin his apprenticeship, he plans to quit the black ledger.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of “the best laid plans of mice and men” in a famous verse reminding us of life’s uncertainty. Ron Pickles discovers that what he envisioned as a temporary job as a ledger agent will change his life forever.
Allen approaches Ron’s story in a linear fashion. In an almost journal like strategy, we follow the dates in Ron’s life. We feel his frustrations awaiting word from the electricians’ union as he seeps deeper into his role as a ledger agent selling and collecting insurance in the heart of Chicago’s violent and racially segregated inner city.
There are some real challenges to writing a story with racism as a prevalent theme: How does one tell the story honestly without offending its readers? Painful language and the ignorance of both black and white characters in seeing each other without bias and suspicion clouding their view frame this book. The thing about Ron is that he is a product of this culture. Ron isn’t a fairytale hero charged with making society into a Norman Rockwell ideal. He isn’t attempting to come into this Chicago neighborhood like some white knight to save the people: He has a job to do and at the forefront of his mind as well is not losing his life while doing that job. In addition, the money that Ron makes as a ledger agent is quite seductive. Yet, The Black Ledger lives up to its name as a crime thriller with evil permeating throughout the pages.
The game changer is when Ron meets Sandra Wesley, a young mother with three children. Sandra has made mistakes in the past, but she is equally determined to rise above her circumstances as a welfare recipient by attending beauty school to give herself and her children a better life. She buys insurance from Ron. Soon, the two bond over an appreciation of Beatles’ music and a respect for each other. The honesty and ease at which Ron and Sandra talk about race, fully aware of their lack of knowledge about each other’s experiences yet not using differences as an impediment in formulating their friendship, is a wonderful thing. In many ways, Ron and Sandra understand each other better than the people they are closest to in their lives.
Lest you think The Black Ledger is all heavy emotional scenes, you would be wrong. Allen weaves humor in his book. The humor succeeds because it isn’t forced; the humor becomes a natural moment in the story. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but dog lovers will appreciate the humorous scenes.
In addition, readers would be wise to pay close attention to the interactions and dialogue between the other ledger agents at Unified Insurance. Characters like Otis, Meadows, Hamilton, Lobranski, Guru and Uhlen shape the story and enrich the suspense. Foreshadowing is generously used although not obvious enough to insult reader intelligence. Perhaps because The Black Ledger is rooted in a true story allows Allen to develop a kinship with these characters that shows in his writing. The physical descriptions of the characters along with their motivations unfold for the reader.
Psychology, sociology and history all play a role in establishing the solid foundation of The Black Ledger. I caution readers: The Black Ledger isn’t an easy read. You will find yourself emotionally exhausted when you finish the book. Hopefully, like Ron, you will see the emotional scars as a badge of growth. How you saw yourself when you began reading may not be how you see yourself when you finish reading. But that’s a good thing. Get angry. Cry. As importantly, don’t be afraid to think, discuss and question those things which you may have felt were the norm. The Black Ledger has provided the roadmap towards an honest dialogue.