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Mary Morris’ “The Jazz Palace”

A tale of self-transformation

Author Mary Morris

In his 1914 poem “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg celebrates the life of what he memorably dubbed the “City of the Big Shoulders”: the stockyards, the railroads, the gangsters, the “Building, breaking, rebuilding.” While Mary Morris’ affecting new novel, The Jazz Palace (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), reprises most of the poet’s catalog of urban dynamism, it’s what he leaves out-jazz-that Morris places at the heart of a story set in Chicago during the 1920s.

It was an era when the city was being transformed by waves of Eastern-European immigrants, fleeing poverty and pogroms, who crowded the tenements of the city’s North Side, and by African-Americans from the South, escaping Jim Crow and the lynch mobs, who settled on the South Side. The character she created to serve as a bridge between these two sides of the city, Benny Lehrman, is the teenage son of a smalltime Jewish manufacturer who makes caps for the local hotel workers and meat packers.

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