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Property, by Valerie Martin

Property, by Valerie Martin

The title of this short novel could be read in multiple ways: “property” refers to the slave, Sarah, owned by the main character, a white woman named Manon. It could also refer to Manon herself, who is in a way the “property” of her husband. When Manon inherits her mother’s house, it is by law her husband’s property, since she “belongs” to him.

Property was first published in 2003 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction by a female author (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It is told in first person through the voice of Manon, a middle-class Creole woman in Louisiana before the Civil War. As a reader, I had a complicated reaction to Manon. I felt sorry for her because of her marriage to a boorish, sadistic man, and I was rooting for her to find a way to escape from the marriage. But I also found her selfish and cold: she has little sympathy for Sarah, who is her husband’s mistress, and who is also searching for a way to escape – this time not just from one man, but from slavery itself.

The story takes place during a time of slave unrest and revolt. Manon is aware of the situation, but is mostly concerned with herself. The author, Valerie Martin, has created a complex character to allow the reader to experience, through Manon’s voice, what it would be like to be a white woman slave-owner. What contorted arguments would a woman like that have to believe in order to maintain the status quo? Yet as distasteful as Manon is, Martin manages to make her a sympathetic character. As a child, she lost her father. Because of her lack of wealth, she felt pressure to marry a man she didn’t love. She is not able to have children, but her husband fathers children with her own slave.

Each scene in this novella is rich with tension and layered with nuances of character.

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

If you are looking for a non-racist alternative to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, here it is: Jubilee. Written by an African-American woman and first published in 1966, Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the author’s great-grandmother’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War.

The photo above shows Walker’s great-grandmother, the “Vyry” of the novel. She took after her white slave-owner father in the color of her skin. I found this photo on the U Space Gallery web site.

Jubilee covers the same time period as Gone with the Wind; they both take place in Georgia; they are both based on family stories passed down; and they both showcase strong women characters. However, unlike Gone with the Wind, which is told from the point of view of white slave owners, Jubilee is told largely from the point of view of African-Americans. While Gone with the Wind insists that blacks were better off enslaved, and includes black characters who claim they don’t want to be free, Jubilee shows the true struggles of blacks, whether they were born free, or born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jubilee is the better novel in many ways. In addition to its focus on African-American experiences, it includes sections showing the thoughts and experiences of slave owners and poor, struggling white families, so readers get a more complete, accurate view of the time period. While towards the end Gone with the Wind suffers from a rushed and overly compressed story line, Jubilee is well developed throughout.

Jubilee follows the story of Vyry, the daughter of a black slave mother and her white slave owner. As mentioned above, Vyry looks white and bears a strong resemblance to her half-sister Lillian, who is the master’s daughter by his white wife. However, the master never acknowledges Vyry as his daughter, and continues to enslave her, even allowing her to be whipped. Vyry wants to marry a free black man, Randall Ware, but her master won’t allow it. Randall flees north and joins the Union Army.

Will Vyry and Randall be united after the war? Will Vyry manage to send her children to school? The novel answers these questions while also showing the day-to-day struggles of Vyry before and during the war, and as she tries to find a place to settle down after the war ends. Jubilee is the classic Civil War novel everyone should be reading. And 2016, being the 50th anniversary of its original publication, is the perfect year to read this book.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is best known as a science fiction writer—one of the few African American women science fiction writers, and the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. However, she has written at least one book which combines historical fiction with time travel.

Kindred was a best-seller when it was first published in 1979, and is still taught in schools and colleges today. I can easily understand why. It is an absolutely gripping novel: engaging characters and plenty of action and suspense, as well as thought-provoking situations that lend themselves to classroom discussion. I could not put it down, and finished it in two days.

Kindred begins in 1976, with an African-American woman, Dana, and her white husband, Kevin, unpacking in their new apartment near Los Angeles. Suddenly, Dana finds herself transported to the bank of a river where a white boy is drowning. She saves his life, and then returns home to her California apartment just as suddenly. She doesn’t know where she’s been, or who she has just saved. However, this becomes clear on her second sudden trip, when she is called to save the same boy, Rufus, now a few years older, from a fire he started. Upon questioning the boy, she finds out that she is in Maryland and the year is 1815. When Rufus reveals his full name, she recognizes him as one of her own ancestors.

It turns out that Rufus somehow has the ability to call Dana back to him whenever he’s in a life-threatening situation. However, each trip for her grows longer and more dangerous. Rufus is the son of a slave-owner, and each time she visits, Dana is in danger of being enslaved herself. During her third trip, Kevin tries to prevent her from being transported by grabbing onto her, and he is also transported with her.

Most of the novel takes place in the early 1800’s, with only brief interludes in 1976, so it is more of a historical novel than a science fiction novel. The time travel is the only science fiction device used in the novel, and there are no machines or other technology to make it happen. It just happens.

In a 1997 interview in Callaloo magazine Butler said the idea for Kindred came to her in college, when she heard a young man, part of the Black Power Movement, blame his ancestors for submitting to cruel and humiliating treatment. Butler realized that this man, and perhaps other young adults like him, didn’t understand that he wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the endurance his ancestors exhibited under extreme stress. Butler uses Kindred as a way of exploring how slavery changed both white people and black people. How does a slave-owner develop from an innocent child? Why might a black person choose to endure mistreatment rather than to fight back or try to escape? How might a modern African American cope with a life of slavery?

Kindred is truly a classic work of historical fiction, science fiction, African American literature, and literature in general. I just found out that a Kindred graphic novel adaptation will be released in 2017, so this wonderful novel should find new readers!

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

One would expect a novel that starts with the drowning of a child to be a tragic book. River, Cross My Heart is anything but. It takes place in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in the 1920’s, and is based on stories the author was told by her family about living in the African-American community of Georgetown at that time.

One hot summer day, 12-year-old Johnnie Mae disobeys her parents’ rule and decides to go swimming in the Potomac River. One impetus for this daredevil act is the fact that she is not allowed to swim in the only pool in the neighborhood, which is for white children. Her 8-year-old sister, Clara, who doesn’t know how to swim, falls off a branch into the water and drowns despite Johnnie Mae’s efforts to save her.

The novel uses this event as a way to show how the community mourns together, works together, and eventually celebrates together. Clara reappears in memory throughout the book as Johnnie Mae does chores, goes to school, makes a new friend, and participates in community events. Although the plot is not strong, there is forward movement and a satisfying closure. The characters are engaging and three-dimensional. Each chapter paints one scene or vignette in the life of Johnnie Mae as she grows up, searches for her place in the world, and tries to forgive herself for her sister’s death.

I don’t know if Breena Clarke is a poet, but the writing style is beautiful and full of images that reflect inner states of being. Shortly after Clara’s death, as Johnnie Mae helps with the cooking, she is mesmerized by what she sees in the boiling water:

The string beans Johnnie Mae poured into the boiling water came alive as they touched the water. They wriggled like garter snakes. Her eyes stayed on them as they hit bottom then floated to the top. A foamy substance bubbled on the surface of the water. . . . From the center of the cauldron, a mass seemed to form. It appeared to come together in the shape of a heart, disperse like a cloud, and then reformulate into a solid mass. It seemed to come together this time as a heart-shape face with amused eyes. Slender green plaits emanated from its skull and framed the face. (p. 87)

I enjoyed this novel not only because of the characters and language, but also because it immerses us in the details of daily life at that time and place. Everyone—children included—worked hard at home and held jobs for pay. Women worked as cooks, seamstresses, beauticians, and herbal healers. Johnnie Mae delivers and picks up clothes for a laundress. We also learn about the changes affecting the community. Electricity is introduced, and we feel the excitement when a swimming pool for African-Americans is finally built.

This novel is not at all sentimental, yet is full of heart. It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.