Dr. Fred L. Johnson III, assistant professor of history at Hope College, is author of the novel "Bittersweet," published recently by One World/Ballatine Books of New York City.
The book tells of the three grown Matthews brothers as they navigate the different lives they've built and the challenges they face in their relationships. Clifford, on the fast track to career success, loses his wife and two sons to divorce. Victor, streetwise and survivor of a painful divorce himself, shuns the system and close relationships. Nathan, a minister, has a loving marriage but is drawn to a member of his congregation that he is counseling.
"Essence" has called "Bittersweet" "a book to curl up with on a winter evening. It's an appealing tale of sibling rivalry and revelry from a man's perspective." Noting Johnson's goal of writing "a really good story," "The Detroit Free Press" said, "Congratulations... you have done that exceedingly well."
"I wanted to write a story that anybody could pick up and relate to the characters--when the person puts the book down, they can go, 'Yeah, I know what you're saying, I hear where you're coming from,'" Johnson said. "We all know of a family member who may be hurting, or may be going through something--or we may be ourselves."
In telling a tale with universal qualities, Johnson is also seeking to dispel negative stereotypes. The Matthews brothers are African American, and through them Johnson hopes to show black men committed to making positive choices for themselves and the others in their lives.
"Historical and popular portrayals of black men as being caring, nurturing, responsible husbands and fathers are woefully imbalanced by images painting them as emotionally dysfunctional, irresponsible, baby-making studs," he said. "The characters demonstrate that black relationships are not just exercises of prolonged misery, but have within them all the necessary elements for achieving long-lasting experiences of love, support, comfort and protection that should inspire hope."
Himself a divorced father of two, Johnson drew on his personal experiences in writing "Bittersweet" although the story isn't autobiographical. He also drew on his experience as a scholar. Victor's negative feelings about the legal system, for example, reflect "something we know historically has been a problem between the African American community and that particular institution," he said.
Johnson joined the Hope faculty in the fall of 2000. His primary field is 19th century U.S. history, specifically the Confederacy during the Civil War. Other areas of study include the U.S. in the 20th century, the U.S. military and Africa.
"Bittersweet," is his first novel, but he has been writing fiction for several years. He is currently at work on another novel, which focuses on a historian who is adrift in his personal and spiritual life.
Johnson is also revising his doctoral dissertation for publication, examining the history of U.S. foreign policy in East Africa. He is interested in writing a biography of Henry O. Flipper, who was born a slave and in 1877 became the first black graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
He received his bachelor's degree from Bowie State College in Maryland, and his master's and doctorate from Kent State University in Ohio. His past career experiences include serving as a corporate trainer and as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Johnson's community involvement includes serving on the board of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. During the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism on Tuesday, Feb. 12, he participated in a workshop as a member of the Ohio-based Christian drama group "Because He Cares, Inc.," which he had joined while in graduate school. He wrote the play the group presented, "Same Game, Different Day."