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    story behind the book | kate tuttle

    A novelist uncovers his grandmother’s remarkable life

    david wilson for the boston globe

    “When I was a kid, I knew my grandmother only as this formidable and intimidating presence,’’ said Stephen L. Carter. “She scared us.” But she had a glamorous side. “I knew her as this woman who was always going off to Europe on a ship and always sending back postcards from around the world, which I valued in those days because I collected stamps.”

    Carter grew up to be a law professor and successful novelist. Family lore about his grandmother Eunice filtered into his fiction, particularly those set in midcentury Harlem. But it wasn’t until recently that Carter decided to “learn the truth behind the stories,” he said. “I felt this tug.”

    The result is “Invisible,” Carter’s biography of his paternal grandmother. Born in Atlanta, Eunice Hunton Carter grew up in New York, graduated from Smith College, went on to study law, and worked as a prosecutor. “You have to imagine this black woman forming an ambition to be a lawyer in the 1920s,” said Carter. “The very things that scared us as children — her determination, that she always had the right answer, and so on — were crucial to her success in life. That fortitude, that determination, were exactly what enabled her to do the things she did.”

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    She was one of Thomas Dewey’s “Twenty Against the Underworld,” the crack legal team that took down gangsters like Lucky Luciano. The crew comprised 19 white men and one black woman. In “Invisible,” Carter chronicles his grandmother’s life after her battles against the mob. “She faced a lot of obstacles,” he said. “Even though she was one of the most famous black women in America in the 1930s and 40s, nobody remembers her now.” Still, much of this forgotten heroine’s work — against corruption, against sexual harassment — feels quite timely today. “Things have changed enormously for black women,” Carter said. “But at the same time, a lot of the same problems remain.”

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    Carter will read at 7 p.m. Monday at Harvard Book Store.

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    Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.