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A Shade of Difference

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Political intrigue. Civil rights. Ethnic clothing. This is A Shade of Difference by Allen Drury.

"I believe in giving his head to an opponent who's riding for a fall," the President said. "It makes the tumble that much more emphatic."

The state of the project: If you're still with me and the New York Times Bestseller Project, I have two things to say to you: why? and...thanks, maybe? This review is not only well overdue, being that I finished reading this book a couple of months ago, it's also not the one I promised would come next. 1962 was apparently the year of my reading bete noir: the character list. Two of the three bestsellers that year are absolute bricks of books populated with so many characters that their respective authors mapped the whole lineage out up front. I've always been intimidated opening a book to a character list and am doubly consternated when I'm reading on my fairly old-school version of the Kindle e-reader, making "flipping back" for a refreshing peek all the more difficult. At this point, I have been pulled in so many directions with my reading list (speculative fiction! book club picks! manuals on housekeeping! meditation primers! everything Mo Willems has ever done! I have kids, after all) that I'm just hoping to get in the balance of '62 before the end of '15 and then start fresh in '72 in the next new year.

How I got the book: I purchased a Kindle e-copy.

The writer: Allen Drury was a political reporter turned successful novelist. Check out his Wikipedia page for a full profile.

The book: A Shade of Difference is the sequel to Drury's best-selling,Pulitzer-Prize-winning Advise and Consent, and here we come to an unforseen issue introduced by my way of approaching this particular set of books in this skip-hop way: had I just worked my way chronologically through the bestsellers, starting in 1942 and then following it with 1943 and 1944 and so on, instead of skipping from '42 to '52 to '62 with the intention of circling back to '43 after completing '82, then I would have read Advise and Consent first. You know, as Drury intended.

Anyway.

I was lucky that it was not strictly necessary to read the first book in the series first, although having read the second one first will certainly remove an element of suspense since the events of Advise and Consent are discussed in A Shade of Difference. (Then again, it will be years before I make it back to 1959's best sellers.)

This book's dual centers are the United Nations in New York City and the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government in Washington, DC. "Terrible Terry," the prince of a small fictional British colony in Africa, has come to the UN to force a vote for immediate independence for his country, and while in the United States inserts himself into the school desegration battle and the broader fight for civil rights for African Americans.

If you are a fan of political novels (not a subgenre I frequently traverse, myself), you will immediately see why Drury is still considered one of the finest American novelists in this arena. The book is filled with vividly-rendered wheeling-and-dealing that gripped me despite my relative lack of interest in the sausage-making side of politics. The novel is also a rich portrait not only of race relations but also midcentury gender roles, with the wives of the powerful wielding tenaciously the soft power of gossip and gatherings while the system as a whole is underpinned by an army of mostly undifferentiated female phone-answerers and nurses and typists.

And given Drury's previous career as a political journalist, the reporters are there in force, identified only by their newspaper or magazine (Washington Post says this, Ebony says that) and functioning in some way like a Greek chorus, providing an overlay of commentary and judgement throughout the novel.

What I couldn't get over, though, was how familiar it all seemed. Sure, the racism and sexism were more blatant and the concerns were Cold War-era, not asymmetrical Global War on Terror stuff, but it was all there. Even just the sheer noisiness of it all. They didn't have the twenty-four-hour news cycle in the sixties, but they did have morning and evening editions of the newspaper and those pages had to be filled. We haven't come a long way, baby.

Next up: I will attempt, for the third or fourth time, to take Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter out of the harbor. I have a Kindle e-copy and a hard copy out from the library in an attempt to deal with my inability to mentally juggle all the characters/toggle back and forth electronically between the novel and the character list that prefaces the book.