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'Being Clem' Is The Final Book In Lesa Cline-Ransome's 'Finding Langston' Trilogy


"Being Clem" opens with an explosion out of the pages of history, the Port Chicago disaster of 1944 that killed 320 sailors, most of them Black, who were loading ammunition for the war in the Pacific on a ship in northern California. But as the narrator, 9-year-old Clemson Thurber Jr., tells us, that toll doesn't include his mother and two sisters back in Chicago because that explosion that happened 2,341 miles away, he says, just ripped us apart, too.

"Being Clem" is the highly anticipated third and final book in Lesa Cline-Ransome's award-winning "Finding Langston" trilogy. Lesa Cline-Ransome joins us from Rhinebeck, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

LESA CLINE-RANSOME: Hello. It is such a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Well, I'm greatly honored to speak to you. Port Chicago Disaster - we should explain. Clem's family lives in Chicago, but the Port Chicago's a port town in northern California. White officers tried to blame that devastating explosion on enlisted Black sailors, didn't they?

CLINE-RANSOME: They sure did. White officers often provided very little training for unloading those explosives to Black sailors. And so they had to kind of devise their own methods. They were often feared for their lives as they were unloading these explosives - just terrified every day. And sure enough, an explosion occurred, killing hundreds of them.

SIMON: And as Clem notes, of course, the ramifications in his own family are immediate. His mother is always worried that Clem is getting old enough to see that she's anxious and worried about providing for the family.

CLINE-RANSOME: Yes. And this is one of the harsh realities of Black women in particular during that time period. You know, his mother is a college-educated woman and has a great deal of pride. And they've lived a comfortable life until his father was killed. And here she was trying to obtain work after the death of her husband. And like so many African American women during that time period who were college educated, the only work they could find was work as domestics. And so she went to work very reluctantly in the Hyde Park community, which was a real blow to her pride, but she had very little choice, you know, to support her family.

SIMON: Clem becomes friends with a boy named Lymon, who's a bully. For a while, that seems to make his life a little more enjoyable, doesn't it?

CLINE-RANSOME: It does. I mean, we're all introduced to Lymon in the first book in the trilogy, in "Finding Langston," where he is the bully to the title character Langston. But he provides a certain level of protection for Clem. And Clem is very, very conflicted. His values are more closely aligned with Langston, the boy he's actually bullying. With Langston, he shares a love of books. They've both lost a parent. He's everything that Clem really does admire, but he's not going to offer that level of protection that Clem needs. So, you know, he has to make this really difficult choice.

SIMON: Yeah. It's important to get the historical detail right. Help us understand how that begins to propel the story because, you know, we're talking about in many ways two war times in 1944, the United States in World War II and also Black families in 1944 America.

CLINE-RANSOME: Yeah. So what I'm trying to do is really to find the emotional truth of Black families during that time period and to also paint a little bit of a counter-narrative of the ways in which Black families are often painted in literature. I wanted to clearly show the emphasis on education and the ways in which his family valued education and how strong that community was, both their church family and the Black community there, but at the same time, the ways in which Blacks were treated both in the military, at home and the discrimination they faced at every turn. And yet - and still they seemed to maintain their dignity, their humanity, and they were always fighting. And this is something I felt it was important for readers to understand.

SIMON: This is, as we note, the - we're told it is the last book in this trilogy, third book with these characters.


SIMON: I'm going to miss Clem and his sisters and his mother.

CLINE-RANSOME: Yes. I am, too.

SIMON: Well, then why not make it a - yeah, go ahead.

CLINE-RANSOME: Well, you know, I - "Being Clem" had to do a lot of heavy lifting. So in "Being Clem," you'll find a lot more of "Finding Langston." You'll find more of Lymon. "Being Clem" does this heavy job of wrapping up all of the relationships so that you don't close the book and turn the last page and go, I wonder what happened to, as you might have done with the other two novels.

SIMON: Lesa Cline-Ransome - her book, "Being Clem." Thank you so much for being with us.

CLINE-RANSOME: Thank you so much. It's been a joy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.