Local author takes readers back to 1900 Paris Exposition


In his latest novel, “When the Old World Was New,” Benjamin Walker allows readers to travel back in time to experience the excitement of the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world fair, through his characters’ eyes.

His latest book picks up where “Return of the Native Son” (2018) ends and spans from about 1900 to 1918 at the end of World War I.

Even though it is a sequel to “Return of the Native Son” and the fourth book in the Jones family series, it stands on its own as it tells a whole new story with tiny glimpses into the past.

“Antonio Jones Jr. (Tony), is the third generation of Jones’,” said Walker. “He was raised by his mixed-race father who was a Union Army officer who passed for white and his mother who was white. His mother who was from Georgia was a teacher at the Penn School. Tony went to the Penn School and became very educated and got into Harvard. But after going to Harvard for a bit, he decided he wanted to become an artist and dropped out of Harvard and headed to Paris. He didn’t have much luck and returned to Georgia and met the daughter of a plantation owner and they fell in love.”

That didn’t sit well with the community because they were a mixed-race couple.

“People didn’t like that and they had a lot of problems,” Walker said. “The Ku Klux Klan tried to kill him, but he escaped and they ran off to Paris so he could try to establish himself as an artist. That is where this book picks up.”

In order to escape the bigotry of the South, as a character in the prologue of the book says, they were headed to the “new old world.”

Walker’s book, “When the Old World Was New,” allows the readers to take a peek inside Paris in the 1900s as the streets rumble with construction and dirt swirls in the air in preparation for the 1900 Paris Exposition as well as the excitement of the characters interacting with new inventions such as electricity, electric lights, steam locomotives, Ferris wheels, telephones, motor cars, moving sidewalks and more.

The exposition also paved the way for many artists such as Monet and Matisse, to have the opportunity to make a name for themselves by entering work into the exhibitions and contests, so it was a perfect opportunity for the main character Tony to arrive and stake his claim.

Tony’s wife, Jackie, was an actress but wasn’t finding opportunities in Paris because she couldn’t speak French, so she traveled to London to try to continue her stage acting there and she becomes quite successful. While she is gone, Tony meets a woman named Madame Goldman who becomes his benefactor and helps launch his career.

According to Walker, many twists and turns transpire throughout the book that causes the reader to laugh out loud or say “I knew it!” “When the Old World Was New” is filled with colorful characters with deep pockets and deep secrets, some of which are not revealed until the very end.

The book has a great deal of French in it, but the response from the other characters usually makes it easy to understand what was said and if not, readers might learn a little French in the process.

The story follows the effects World War I had on Paris itself, all of the characters, as well as their careers. 

Walker spent time in France several times, but most recently from September 2021 to April 2022 absorbing the culture and language.

“So, I spent seven months in the South of France,” he said. “I got to know my landlady, who was American, pretty well. She married a Frenchmen and raised her two children there.”

His previous landlady runs a book club in France once a month and recently she had some exciting news for him.

“She sent me an email saying ‘When the Old World Was New’ is in all the book stores and all her friends are reading it,” he said. “I went online with my distributor, Ingram, and saw that they had sold more copies in France than in the U.S.”

“When the Old World Was New” is available at Jaminpress.com, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Walker, who lives in Jacksonville, is a graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, as well as San Francisco State University, where he received an M.A. degree in creative writing.

Walker has a book signing lined up at the Book Loft in Fernandina from 1 to 3 p.m. June 3.

Future book signings will be posted on jaminpress.com.