In The Monsters We Defy, Leslye Penelope takes a small footnote about a real woman who lived in Washington DC in the 1920s and weaves an amazing tale around her. Clara Johnson was born wrapped in her caul, and because of that she has grown up seeing and speaking with spirits. As a Black woman in DC in the 1920s, she’s part of a vibrant, striving community struggling to cope with emerging Jim Crow laws and the ever-present threat of white people.
Clara wants to live her life and get rid of her annoying roommate Zelda, a former circus performer, but due to a deal she made with a spirit known as the Empress, she is required to help others when they need spiritual help. When people start becoming catatonic and disappearing, she realizes that she may be the only one who can help. Luckily, Zelda insists on helping, and it turns out that a charismatic musician named Israel Lee is also on her side.
To help the lost souls requires nights at speakeasys, bootleg operations, literary events and fancy hotels. The book was a fantastic trip to the age of flappers. And everyone needs a sidekick like Zelda. I’m hoping the author writes another book, and we get to learn more about her.