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The Paragon Hotel


The Paragon Hotel

Critically acclaimed author Lyndsay Faye, twice nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award, stated that THE PARAGON HOTEL was the most difficult book she has ever written. All I can say is that whatever heartache she went through during her extensive research was well worth it. This is her masterpiece, and should be read in high school and college literature courses as a truly American story that provides a snapshot of the horrors of racism during the Prohibition era of the 1920s.

Faye has always written novels based on what she loves. She grew up a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson adventures, and has written her own Holmes tale as well as providing stories for numerous anthologies while being a member of various Holmes groups such as The Baker Street Irregulars. She also penned a series of novels about the Copper Era in New York City and the origins of the NYPD. Many writers create stories from what they know and from where they came. Although a current resident of Queens, NY --- my own birthplace --- Faye was born in San Jose, California, but moved with her family when she was six years old to Longview, Washington, about an hour drive from Portland, Oregon.

THE PARAGON HOTEL reads almost like two historical thrillers rolled into one. The chapters are labeled either NOW or THEN, with not much period of time separating the two. In the THEN sections, we see Alice “Nobody” James being raised in Harlem, New York, amidst the turmoil of World War I and the Prohibition Era. She is also living among the extremely dangerous New York Mafia, and her interactions with both those within the group and those suffering to survive in spite of them are well fleshed out. However, it is a bullet wound during a skirmish with the Mob that propels Alice to truly become a nobody as she jumps on a train headed West in hopes of starting her life over again.

This period is referred to as NOW, and the horrors that Alice faced in New York would not prepare her for those she was about to witness in her newly adopted West Coast home. There is a piece provided by Faye at the onset of the novel taken from the Oregon State Constitution in 1857 that literally denies Negroes the chance to even reside within the state. Regrettably, not much has changed as Faye also refers to an article in The Atlantic written in July 2016 entitled "The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America.” All of the NOW chapters have eye-opening historical references like this, and they are extremely effective and shocking.

"THE PARAGON HOTEL is a triumph for Lyndsay Faye. As I started reading it, I found her prose almost reminiscent of classic writers like Dickens and Brontë.... This challenging read deserves a wide audience of all ages to consume it."

Alice's first significant interaction with a colored person is when one of the porters on the train, Max, notices that she is in a bad way and takes her to his residence, an all-black hotel called The Paragon. Weakened badly from the gunshot wound that was never properly treated, Max knows enough to get Alice to another Paragon residence, fellow World War I veteran Dr. Pendleton. Alice very quickly has become the only white resident of the Paragon, and the majority of the full-time boarders there take her into their home and come close to accepting her. When Alice begins to learn from the many residents she meets --- folks like Blossom, Christina, Miss Mavereen, Rooster and, of course, Max --- she sees that they are a severely oppressed minority who find themselves directly in the crosshairs of the local KKK. Add to that the corrupt all-white police force, and merely existing day to day is a serious struggle for these new acquaintances Alice has made.

The introduction of the KKK spreads like a blanket of hate over the rest of the story. Faye deftly throws a new plotline that finds a young resident of the Paragon, a six-year-old mulatto boy named Davy Lee, suddenly go missing during a trip to the local state fair. Alice and everyone at the Paragon searches tirelessly for the child, to no avail. They obviously get little help from local law enforcement, and the newspaper doesn't have much interest in giving honest and serious coverage to the story. Everyone fears the worst: kidnapping by a hate-filled racist or the KKK itself.

Some of the best passages in the novel are between Alice and the resident with whom she becomes closest, Blossom. Blossom is a well-spoken young person with a lot to say, all the while harboring a big secret that she must hide even from her own friends at the Paragon. Alice also has a burgeoning relationship with Max, even though it was seriously taboo during those times, especially in a place like Portland. She takes a big risk by reaching out to a woman she met on the train who has ties to the local KKK, all in an effort to get any possible information about Davy. She is amazed to find that the KKK and their supporters are just as blindly loyal and dangerous as the Mafia she left behind in New York.

It's one thing to have heard about crosses being burned, and lynches and hangings suffered at the hands of the KKK. It's even more impactful to read about it in the pages of this book and have it outlined in such a true way that allows the reader to visualize these horrors without being able to look away. One of the biggest tragedies detailed here is when the very same doctor who helped Alice when she was taken to the Paragon is hung to death by the KKK, all because he touched a well-known white woman who had fainted and required medical attention. Max takes it especially hard as he and the doctor were both WWI veterans who were treated better overseas in Paris where they were stationed than back on their own home front amongst their fellow Americans.

THE PARAGON HOTEL is a triumph for Lyndsay Faye. As I started reading it, I found her prose almost reminiscent of classic writers like Dickens and Brontë. Additionally, the subject matter harkens to another era when writers like James Baldwin were able to honestly talk about the trials and tribulations of African Americans in the U.S. This novel is shocking and extremely real with language that some will have trouble digesting --- but that is the intention. This challenging read deserves a wide audience of all ages to consume it. Hopefully, you will take the time to think hard on the subject matter and talk about it with all the other serious readers in your life.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 11, 2019

The Paragon Hotel
by Lyndsay Faye