Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood by Margot Mifflin

Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood by Margot Mifflin
Publisher: Counterpoint
Genre: Non-Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Looking for Miss America is a fast–paced narrative history of a curious and contradictory institution. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a scholarship competition, the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change—the post–suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This ever–changing institution has been shaped by war, evangelism, the rise of television and reality TV, and, significantly, by contestants who confounded expectations.

Spotlighting individuals, from Yolande Betbeze, whose refusal to pose in swimsuits led an angry sponsor to launch the rival Miss USA contest, to the first black winner, Vanessa Williams, who received death threats and was protected by sharpshooters in her hometown parade, Margot Mifflin shows how women made hard bargains even as they used the pageant for economic advancement. The pageant’s history includes, crucially, those it excluded; the notorious Rule Seven, which required contestants to be “of the white race,” was retired in the 1950s, but no women of color were crowned until the 1980s.

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There she is…but she’s not just one thing.

I’d watched the end of a couple televised Miss America pageants and even attended a very small, very local pageant when I was a kid. I wasn’t fascinated by the gowns or the girls, but how they managed to wear those huge earrings and not have them ripped out of their lobes. I was a strange kid.

Since that’s what I thought of the pageants, I picked up this book. I have to admit, picking it up was a total lark. I just saw it at the library and grabbed. I wasn’t all that interested in pageants, but this book certainly opened my eyes. The girls who took part in the early pageants did it for the money and because they wanted to get the notoriety, but many of them were heavily chaperoned and some exploited. I had no idea the first few girls who won the Miss America pageant were sixteen years old. Crazy.

This doesn’t just give the dirt on the pageant, but also the stories of determination and overcoming difficulties. This book talks about the changes in the sixties when the contestants would push back against stereotypes and in the seventies when multicultural women were finishing high in the pageant and changing the ideals of what was beautiful.

If you’re looking for something that’s a little more substantive than it could be and full of great tidbits on the pageant, then this might be the book for you.

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Publisher: Counterpoint
Genre: Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (256 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Ginger

Evelyn is a Creole woman who comes of age in New Orleans at the height of World War II. Her family inhabits the upper echelon of Black society, and when she falls for no-account Renard, she is forced to choose between her life of privilege and the man she loves.

In 1982, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, is a frazzled single mother grappling with her absent husband’s drug addiction. Just as she comes to terms with his abandoning the family, he returns, ready to resume their old life.

Jackie’s son, T.C., loves the creative process of growing marijuana more than the weed itself. He was a square before Hurricane Katrina, but the New Orleans he knew didn’t survive the storm. Fresh out of a four-month stint for drug charges, T.C. decides to start over―until an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.
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For Evelyn, Jim Crow is an ongoing reality, and in its wake new threats spring up to haunt her descendants. A Kind of Freedom is an urgent novel that explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South through a poignant and redemptive family history.

This book begins with the Winter of 1944 and focuses on specific family members from three generations. Starting with Evelyn, who is the mother of Jackie, and Jackie is the mother of T.C. A captivating but honest work of being born into society’s curse but also personal challenges that cause set backs. Will this family find their kind of freedom?

Each character makes poor choice that leads to their circumstances. Evelyn was attending nursing school when she met Renard and became pregnant with Jackie. Jackie is a single wife due to the fact her pharmacist husband ended up destroying his career and marriage due to his drug use. Jackie is Terry Cleveland’s (T.C.) mother. T.C. is recently released from jail for growing and selling marijuana. T.C. is the youngest of the generation. Will he break the family curse and be the one to make the right decision for a change?

I enjoyed how the author created and shared three generation in one story. Each character had their own personality and struggle and each of their stories were shared and lapsed to where it pieced together where the old generation’s story ended. The flow of the novel had a rhythm that was easy to follow. I like that I wasn’t able to tell ahead what was going to happen in the end. While reading I hoped that things would turn out a certain way but they didn’t.

I would have liked for the author to have mentioned the characters’ relationship more. I think I understood the ties to each story but would have liked the confirmation from the author. After finishing the book I was left with the question of what kind of freedom the author was trying to relay to readers. Maybe it is some underlying message that I didn’t pick up on.

A brave move by the author in her success in weaving three generations together in one heart stopping finale. Life isn’t easy and this is a story of generations that has endured. I enjoyed reading the story of the characters and while reading I was hoping good things would start happening for them. My first thought after finishing the book was that it was sad. I felt sad that the family went through so much and couldn’t get to a happy ending.

This book has such an amazing plot that I can see the author expanding into telling the stories of the other family members. Even though I couldn’t relate the title with the story I would like to read more from this author. Life isn’t always happy and many don’t get that happy ending and that’s what draws me to read more by this author because of her unflinching honesty of how life sometimes can be.