“In the Face of the Sun” is a portrait of several generations of a Los Angeles family, initially living in a Sears Roebuck home, built from a kit, living a fairly middle class/working class life. In 1928, Daisy and Henrietta still live at home with their parents, but their mother is seriously ill. She suffered a heart attack and stroke in the aftermath of a dam collapse that killed her brothers. Daisy and Henrietta’s father is a chauffeur by trade, working for the actor Alfred Lunt at the moment. Daisy left college when her mother became ill. She’s the older daughter. Henrietta is around 16. The “girls” are working in the luxurious Sommerville Hotel. The hotel is just about to celebrate its grand opening as the first high end hotel built and owned by a well off couple and serving a Black clientele. The NAACP is holding its convention at the hotel shortly after it opens with W.E.B. DuBois as the keynote and a host of high profile men and women from the civil rights movement and from the entertainment industry. As hotel staff, Daisy and Henrietta are in their orbit if not at the elevated levels of these powerful guests.
There really was a Hotel Sommerville, later the Dunbar Hotel, in L.A.. Bryce does a nice job creating the setting, the city in this time and what was happening in the upper class Black community and with the staff members who served them. It is the jazz age, and the nightlife and music of this period, still part of the prohibition era, are deftly woven in. Bryce also does a fabulous job focusing on the Black publications of the era, with a character who is a columnist for the California Eagle. (An aside: you can read the California Eagle on Newspapers.com where it is archived. It served as one source for this novel).
Although the novel opens and closes in 1990, the story alternates between this era in 1928, when Daisy and Henrietta are on the brink of adulthood, and 1968 when Henrietta’s daughter Frankie looks up her Aunt Daisy in Chicago. They never met and Frankie needs help to leave her abusive husband. Her relationship with her mother is strained at best. Frankie knows Daisy and Henrietta have not talked since 1928, but not why. Frankie runs hot and cold about her Aunt Daisy, who pursued her interest in writing/journalism over the years and has become a chain smoking character. Daisy agrees to take Frankie to the bus station. It is that point in 1968 when anti-war sentiment is strong, but Frankie’s father died in Korea and she considers service a patriotic duty. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed only a few months earlier and Robert F. Kennedy’s death is on the horizon. Aretha is on the radio. Frankie is starting off on a difficult physical and personal journey. She’s tried to leave her husband before and keeps returning to him. Meanwhile, we learn Daisy is driving to L.A., for unclear reasons. She drops Frankie off at the bus station, heading off to start her own trip to the same destination. And that’s fine with Frankie.
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two eras and the ways Bryce brings elements of then current attitudes on race/civil rights, music, class, domestic violence, the Black press and the many lines still firmly drawn between races, classes, men and women. Yet, in both eras, there are inroads and determined activists as well as folks just living their lives in their Sears homes and their Hollywood mansions. The story did drag a little for me here and there, yet I ended up being happy for every detail included in the whole. I eventually was riveted. “In the Face of the Sun” is a lovely, loving piece, well researched, with compelling characters, drama, happiness… life.