Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Novels

I guess it all started with Kathryn Stockett. Who'd have imagined that a debut novel about a wannabe writer and a group of servants in the '60's south would be on the "most wanted" list of every book group and the New York Times for, what, two years now? The popularity of The Help seems to have kicked off an entire genre of literature about slavery and its long-term repercussions.

Two novels that appear to be an offshoot of this phase, that I've been reading simultaneously, are the inappropriately named Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. James' novel is extraordinary by any literary standards and the reading (I'm listening in my car) by Robin Miles is lyrical.
On a Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1800's the horrific treatment of slaves is so disturbing that I often had to pull the car to the side of the road to digest it. We think we know all this history and have somehow put it behind us but reading about or listening to the forms of brutality that were routinely visited upon the slaves by their overseers and enslavers is still incomprehensible.

A small group of women, headed up by one of the house slaves, Homer, who has learned to read and write, have heard rumors of the uprising in Haiti and the establishment of a free country for Africans. Homer identifies the strongest women on the Montpelier plantation, where she is considered a leader in the hierarchy of slaves, in whom she can place her trust, envisioning a similar uprising there. But when she lobbies to bring Lilith into the group, dissension, jealousy and mistrust threaten their plans.

Lilith is an amazing, complicated, deeply realized character and, as I was reading, I found myself wondering again and again if this writer, with whom I was unfamiliar, was a man or a woman. I guess I had assumed a woman because of the way the women's anguish and determination were handled. In fact, only yesterday did I decide to go online and find out and, to  my surprise and delight, Marlon James is a man and a gorgeous writer at that. His website is fantastic!

This book would make a fabulous book discussion but might be too difficult for some of our readers to take. Questions arise in this book and in Wench about the often close, but one can't dignify it by calling it love, relationships between many of the enslaved women and their masters or overseers. I liken them to victims of the Stockholm Syndrome wherein even small creature comforts and special treatment can become addictive when one is normally used to torture and degradation. For Lilith, loyalty to her own people and loyalty to the Irish overseer, Robert, with whom she lives, becomes a debilitating dilemma.

Similarly in Wench, certain female slaves on a plantation in Tennessee during this same 1800's time frame, are identified as "special," usually because they have been raped or forced into sex with the "master" and now have children with him. These women travel each summer to a resort in Ohio, an actual place which later became the famed Wilberforce Academy, where they live with their enslavers as couples, still performing the household duties but also dressing up in the evening, sitting at table or dancing with their "masters" and being served by free blacks.

Naturally, complicated and complex feelings would have to come of this dichotomous life, knowing that these women are living part of their lives in a state where Negroes are free, where some can read and write and speak surreptitiously of the underground railroad and escape. Yet these women are bound to their enslavers because they have hopes and dreams for their half white children, that someday they will be freed and be able to own land and raise free families.

Perkins-Valdez's book doesn't compare in literary craft to Marlon James's but it did turn out to be a good companion piece for comparison. These novels have left me bereft and drained and, readers, you may feel the same. Tomorrow is my book discussion on the equally dismal Little Bee, but after that, I'm going to try to find some light-hearted reading to write about for a bit. I promise. Bear with me.

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