cover image Ella


Diane Richards. Amistad, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-333865-4

Richards, a former background vocalist for Whitney Houston, debuts with an electrifying tale of Ella Fitzgerald in the years before she was discovered on “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater in 1934. The story begins in 1932, when 15-year-old Ella and her family struggle to get by during the Great Depression. Her mother, Tempie, carries the burden of supporting the family financially as a laundress in Yonkers. Tempie’s interracial marriage to Ella’s stepfather, Portuguese immigrant Joseph Da Silva, is burdened by his inability to hold down a job and his alcoholism. Meanwhile, Tempie encourages Ella to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer, pinning her own dashed hopes on her daughter. After Tempie dies suddenly from injuries she sustained in an accident years earlier, Ella, who is physically and sexually abused by Joseph, runs to her Aunt Virginia’s home in Harlem. Her quest to make it out of poverty meets one major obstacle after another, and she soon becomes a numbers runner and a lookout girl for a local brothel. Her struggles continue after she’s sent to a racist reformatory school in Upstate New York for truancy, though she finds refuge in singing and eventually manages to escape. Richards’s research brings the sights and sounds of 1930s Harlem to vivid life, and she portrays Fitzgerald’s troubling teen years with care and sensitivity. Readers will be grateful for the chance to feel so deeply acquainted with “The First Lady of Song.” Agents: Regina Brooks, Serendipity Literary; Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary. (May)