Writing a biography has to be difficult, particularly if the subject is still alive. This only increases the stress to get it right. And, this getting it right is not only about the facts! It means telling the story of this person’s life in a way that echoes the character by rebuilding scenes and scenery, schemes and themes that made the person who they were. Or are.
In writing the biography of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Michelle Green opted to tell the story in first person, giving readers the illusion that they are in the presence of Johnson and hearing directly from her. This can only add to the pressure to get it right.
She captures us with the very first paragraph.
“Mama never mentioned it, but I’m sure I musta been born with a baseball in my hand, it’s smooth white skin curving into my tiny brown palm. Ever since I can remember, my thoughts flooding back over sixty years now, my life has been wrapped up in that three-inch universe of twine and leather. It’s always been that way with me, and I expect always will be.”
The story is framed with a phone call to Johnson from a reporter wanting to know how she feels about the County Stadium in Milwaukee being torn down and replaced. Her name is on a wall there that honors the Negro League Wall of Fame. Johnson played in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns.
I’d love to tell you the wonderful history I learned in reading this book, but I don’t want to spoil that for you. I will tell you that in Green’s writing, you experience the work of a gifted storyteller relating an interesting hole in history. It’s these hole’s that Green enjoys writing about.
Johnson’s story is full of acts of discrimination yet she has chosen to live out the good memories. While her early career as a baseball player would have been fraught with issues of sexism, it was actually racism that most often denied her possibilities. Green presents these acts in a manner that is straightforward but not overpowering to the story, one of personal achievement. Johnson’s photos are placed throughout the book, however in the paperback version I read they were small and poorly copied. As with any image, they did add to the richness of the story itself.
March is the time when many thoughts turn to baseball. This month, Mo’ne Davis: Remember My Name: My story from First Pitch to Game Changer by Mo’ne Davis (HarperCollins) is released. I can’t help but see parallels between these two. In looking for a biography of Johnson, I stumbled across an article about Johnson showing up to witness Davis as she planed in the Little League World series. “This girl is the best thing since food,” Mamie Johnson said.
Green’s book is pretty good, too! She writes a cohesive and engaging biography that gives readers insights into the scenes and scenery and the schemes and themes in the life of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.