Review: Blistering stories of Black lives that set the record straight
On the Shelf
The Office of Historical Corrections
By Danielle Evans
Riverhead: 288 pages, $27
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An internet meme created by psychotherapist Lee McKay Doe — a mockup of a drug ad headlined “Internalized Capitalism Looks Like ...” — listed “symptoms” of the pseudo-medical condition of living in 21st century America. One of them was “Feeling lazy, even when you’re experiencing pain, trauma or adversity.”
All of the people in “The Office of Historical Corrections,” a new collection of short stories and a novella by Danielle Evans, experience that symptom. Pain, trauma and adversity are baked into the lives of Evans’ characters (here and in her acclaimed 2010 debut, “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self”) by virtue of their being Black in the United States.
Under internalized capitalism, feeling lazy is a symptom of working too hard, as all these protagonists do. In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa is the gift shop cashier at a fictional Midwestern museum dedicated to the Titanic disaster. The narrator of “Boys Go to Jupiter” works hard to bring her multiracial relatives together. Cassie, of the titular novella, toils faithfully as a public historian. Still, they wonder if they’re doing enough. They understand, on a deep level, that even when they follow every single rule, they’re doomed to fall short.
Evans seems to use the shorter stories in “Historical Corrections” as an extended overture to the novella that concludes the book, with each story embodying a particular problem faced by Black people in this country: invisibility, classism, the tensions of being multiracial and the whitewashing of history.
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In the novella, Cassie tells us she grew up in an upper-middle-class family, earned a PhD and won a coveted spot at a private university in her hometown of Washington, D.C. But when the new governmental Institute for Public History offered her a job, she skipped the tenure track for public service. Cassie usually takes her work of revising history home with her — as when she corrects a cake-maker’s brochure copy on Juneteenth. It’s not, she tells the clerk, a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation but rather “the date slaves in Texas learned they were free.” The white woman shrugs, and Cassie says, "“I’m just going to leave a note. A tiny correction.”
One of the saving graces of the last few years is the abundance of sharp fiction that deftly dramatizes racial injustice and division in this country. Evans goes further than most, though, in exploring divisions within the Black community — including the sort of “internalized capitalism” that could, for instance, make a Black celebrity support a racist president.
These tensions rise to the surface when Cassie’s boss calls her into his office and says, “We have a Genie problem.” Genie, Cassie’s lifelong frenemy, is causing trouble for the institute. What happens next forces Cassie to flip her internalized script.
For most of their childhood and much of their adulthood, Genie was the golden girl, the perfect daughter, student and neighbor. If Cassie’s parents were upper-middle-class, Genie’s were rich. Both grew up to earn doctorates in history, but their trajectories were not the same. Cassie was doted on and given freedom, but Genie had the beauty and poise; she married a young Black doctor, had her own perfect daughter.
But Genie changed. She got divorced, started going by “Genevieve” and cut her hair to “a crisp teenie Afro.” In her new life, Genevieve is political, saying in her first office meeting that “we were tiptoeing around history to the point that we might as well be lying to people.” Suddenly it’s Cassie who seems conservative. When she is sent to Wisconsin to make a correction to a monument in the town of Cherry Mill, she can’t bring herself to comprehend the truth behind the death of a Black man, Josiah Wynslow, when a white mob burned down his general store.
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Much to Cassie’s dismay, Genevieve has already arrived in Cherry Mill, ready to capitalize on the mystery of Wynslow, whose remains were never found. Wynslow’s story is complicated by his pretty younger sister Minerva, who passed as white in nearby Milwaukee. As Cassie and Genevieve piece together Minerva’s role in the Cherry Mill fire, they must come to terms with their own roles in a flawed system — one in which Blacks must continually ask themselves, “Do they know I’m human yet?”
White people, Cassie notes, believe this is “their question to answer.” As one descendant of the white mob, going by the name “White Justice,” becomes entangled in their investigation, a case that Cassie had seen as a bureaucratic correction and Genevieve as a career-making story becomes something more urgent and dangerous.
It might seem that Evans has moved outward from the story of a tangled friendship to grander historical questions. But in fact, the author has been traveling a windier path. She has traversed vast minefields and returned to a single relationship, to the psyches of two real, flawed women whose different methods of coping with hatred have led them back to each other. What happens next is shocking, though perhaps less so for Black readers, who will understand more viscerally what Genevieve means when she describes her 10-year-old daughter as “amazing” but adds that it will “never be enough.”
The other stories in “The Office of Historical Corrections” should not be skipped. In “Happily Ever After,” “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” “Anything Could Disappear” and other pieces, Evans calmly and expertly navigates the limits and possibilities of short stories. Yet here they risk being given short shrift because they work as a preamble to the novella, which combines uncommon storytelling with rare wisdom. Evans jokes in her “Acknowledgements” that her editors at Riverhead didn’t “yell” at her when she said she wanted to release another volume of short fiction. That’s probably because they were too busy cheering her on, knowing that her eventual novel will be worth the wait. “The Office of Historical Corrections” certainly has been.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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