cover image The Black Rose

The Black Rose

Tananarive Due. One World, $25.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-345-43960-4

An entrepreneur and an innovator in African-American hair care became the first black female millionaire in America. The life of this historical figure, born Sarah Breedlove, was researched heavily by Alex Haley and proves to be a rich subject for Due, who relied on interviews, letters and other data compiled by the late author of Roots. The strong-willed heroine was born in Delta, La., in the 1860s to sharecropper parents, and was orphaned at age seven. Sarah and her older sister, Lou, find employment as washerwomen for a spirited black woman who runs a laundry business in Vicksburg, Miss. At 14, Sarah marries a good man, but when he is brutally killed, she and her daughter, Lelia, are nearly destitute, until Sarah starts her own laundry business in St. Louis. Sarah works hard for years before stumbling upon the ""miracle"" ingredient--sulfur--that cures her painful, itching scalp and promotes hair growth. Perfecting her increasingly popular concoction, she turns her kitchen into a production line/beauty parlor. After she marries flashy adman C.J. Walker, a nationwide ad campaign turns Madam C.J. Walker into a household name, the business funding a beauty college where women (""black roses"") are trained to care for African-American hair. Walker gains entry to the black elite and extraordinary material wealth, yet the same toil that builds her business leads to personal heartbreak and cuts her life short. The author of two supernatural thrillers (My Soul to Keep; The Between), Due's leap into historical fiction is accomplished and enlivened by rich characterizations. A few flash-forward scenes necessary for the story's irony or suspense barely halt the polished pacing and keen-eared dialogue as this dramatic rags-to-riches narrative moves briskly toward a bittersweet end. Agent, John Hawkins. Sample chapter distributed through select African-American beauty salons nationwide; 5-city author tour. (June) FYI: Due's own grandmother was a graduate of the Madam C.J. Walker School of Beauty Culture.