The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham [Book Review]

Avery Cunningham’s debut novel, The Mayor of Maxwell Street, is historical fiction that offers readers a look into the life of a black debutante in Chicago during the early 1920s. While it might not be an instant classic, it is a unique story. Learn more about the plot and why I gave the book three out of five stars.

Twenty-year-old Nelly Sawyer is the daughter of the alleged “wealthiest Negro in America,” a Kentucky horse breeder whose wealth and prestige catapults his family to the heights of the exclusive, elite Black society. After the unexpected death of her brother—the family’s presumed heir—Nelly goes from being virtually unknown to a premier debutante overnight. But Nelly has aspirations beyond society’s influence and marriage. For the past year, she has worked undercover as an investigative journalist for the Chicago Defender, sharing the achievements and tribulations of everyday Black people living in the shadow of Jim Crow. Now, her latest assignment thrusts her into the den of a dangerous vice, the so-called Mayor of Maxwell Street.

Charming and mysterious, Jay Shorey strives to balance his connection to the Chicago underworld with his desperate yearning for the refinement and protection of high society. Born to a murdered bi-racial couple in rural Alabama, he knows firsthand what it means to be denied a chance at the American dream. When a tragic turn of fate gave Jay a rare path out, he took it without question. He washed up on Chicago’s storied shores and never looked back, until now.

When Nelly’s and Jay’s paths cross, she recruits him to help expose the Mayor and bring about a lasting change in a corrupted city. Trapped between the monolith of Jim Crow, the inflexible world of the Black upper class, and the violence of Prohibition-era Chicago, Jay and Nelly work together and stoke the flames of a love worth fighting for. And yet, as with all things in America, there is a price to be paid. What risk is Nelly willing to take for a young man willing to risk it all? []

The shining star of Maxwell Street is Nelly Sawyer, a remarkable character who defies the societal rules of her time. Despite living in an era filled with racial and gender inequality, she became a professional writer and investigator. Nelly’s intelligence and determination make her the best part of the book. Avery Cunningham’s writing style is effortless, which makes it easy for the reader to immerse themselves in the vivid world of the 1920s. She expertly recreates a vibrant historical backdrop, allowing readers to travel back to Maxwell Street.

The Mayor of Maxwell Street is an interesting read but not one of my favorites. The plot is engaging but struggles with pacing; however, the book’s compelling characters make it worth picking up. Avery Cunningham has a bright future as an author, and I look forward to reading more of her work. If you’re seeking a historical novel with a strong and unforgettable female lead, consider giving this book a chance.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hyperion Avenue for this advanced reader’s copy in exchange for a thoughtful and honest review.

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