Reviewed by Tammy Ruggles for Readers' Favorite
The Realist by Jack Hemphill is a historical fiction novel about a young biracial man yearning to be an artist during the Great Depression. Leon Hawkins grew up in an orphanage with the comfort of a slightly older sister, Edith. From the time he could hold a crayon or pencil, he wanted to be an artist. He was born with talent. He aged out of the orphanage at twenty-one and found it impossible to gain work due to having a black mother and a white father. His only option was to learn survival skills on the street, finding shelter with other homeless men under a bridge. But his calling to be an artist never left him, and he did what he could, drawing and painting his surroundings. This led him on a surprising journey, where he rose above racial barriers and made a difference in the lives of those around him.
Jack Hemphill captures the life and times of Leon Hawkins with rich detail and style, setting you down in the era to experience what it was like for a biracial man living back then and trying to make it as an artist. His vivid imagery brings the people and places to life. The plot itself is compelling; you really struggle with Hawkins as he makes his way from the orphanage into the wider world, which is quite unfriendly. But he doesn't give up, and this is one of the biggest takeaways of the novel. You will feel Leon's frustration of seeming to not fit in anywhere, and the triumph of becoming the artist he'd always dreamed of. The writing is smooth, graceful, and dependable. My favorite parts are when he reunites with Edith and his process of becoming a noted artist, and the ending is a moving surprise. The Realist by Jack Hemphill is a must-read if you like intriguing characters in a plot-driven historical drama.