Ella: A Novel

Image of Ella: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 7, 2024
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“Officials forcibly remove her to the New York School for Girls where she is essentially imprisoned and turned into an indentured servant. Her headstrong temperament quickly gets her labeled ‘ungovernable.’"

Everyone knows Ella Fitzgerald as a legendary vocalist through her recordings and television appearances. She is especially celebrated for her Great American Songbook collection, a series of eight studio albums backed by big bands that were released between 1956 and 1964. In 1995 they won the Grammy for Best Historical Recording.

Ella performed with celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Marilyn Monroe, and Louis Armstrong. Despite a score of biographies what few people know is the horrific abuse and vicious cruelty she suffered growing up in Harlem in 1932 at the start of the depression.

She might be thralled by the sight of Ethel Waters, the world-famous Black singer and film star, sauntering down Harlem’s boulevards in a mink coat “as if she were everyday Harlem folk.” She took the sighting “as an omen that better times lay ahead for her, too.”

But the reality Ella had to cope with was a broken family, rampant racism, the untimely death of her mother and, afterward, the drunken abuse of her illiterate white cracker of a stepfather.

Readers will recoil from this dark back story while simultaneously being awed and inspired by the way Ella transcended it to become a 20th century icon.

Author Diane Richards, Executive Director of the Harlem writers Guild and herself a writer, playwright, and singer has brilliantly chosen to tell Ella’s story in the form of a novel. Her synthesis is a terrific example of creative nonfiction because fictive techniques such as scenes and dialogue deliver a far greater emotional punch that the dry chronicling of factual events ever could.

Richard’s scenes are well constructed. The food that neighbors brought by “ran out ten days after the funeral.” Her angry stepfather demanded that she cook, but the 15-year-old Ella didn’t know how. He hadn’t left any money for shopping. Why hadn’t he gone shopping himself? Life, she quickly learned, “had a way of showing up mean and hungry.”

Forced to skip school to take care of the house and her younger sister, only her late mother’s records made her interminable chores bearable. Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, the Boswell sisters, and Ma Rainey buoyed her spirits. And then in a drunken rage the stepfather tries to molest her and then strangle her when she dares to resist.

It seemed best to move in with Aunt Virginia, a woman who valued appearances and proper diction. The Aunt enrolls her in the integrated Wadleigh High School for girls. “Education is the ticket,” she lectures. But despite genteel appearances Aunt Virginia is stretched thin, living in reduced circumstances. Ella is guilt struck at having no money to contribute let alone having any to rescue her younger sister who is still stuck with the brutish stepfather.

Truancy seems better. Fifteen-year-old Ella is a natural dancer, “Miss Sassy Feet,” winning contests at the Shim Sham Club in Harlem and later at the Savoy. Well over half the book is taken up with Ella’s dreams—to find a dance partner, scrounging enough money to enter contests, overcome the opprobrium first of her stepfather and later her aunt.

She becomes a numbers runner, earning up to $15 a day—an enormous sum in 1933. ForThe Parisian House” bordello she earns her keep standing guard watching out for the cops.

Warnings from the Wadleigh School are ignored, and officials forcibly remove her to the New York School for Girls where she is essentially imprisoned and turned into an indentured servant. Her headstrong temperament quickly gets her labeled “ungovernable,” and soon her string of punishments escalates into being locked up in a lightless dungeon with an earthen floor and a pail to piss in.

It gets worse after further infractions: She is forced to “dig her own grave,” buried up to her neck in the fetid damp earth, and then abandoned in the dark for days. In the dark Ella refuses to give into the terror, deciding that no force outside of herself will defeat her. We are all somebody despite the circumstances were born into. “The week had utterly transformed her.”

She escapes during a performance of Christmas carols that the inmates, ludicrously, are forced to sing for clueless white people who know nothing of the dreadful conditions within the school walls.

In a suspensefully constructed ending we see, finally in 1934, her chance at the Apollo theater. She decides—onstage, standing in front of the microphone—“I don’t want to dance.” She wants to sing. The reader closes this inspiring book feeling as if a tsunami has just washed over them.