Human adversity is the stuff of compelling novels. Adversity pulls ustogether and erases the lines that we try to draw in the sand. It draws up our passions of who we are at our very cores and works around our tendency toward basic ingroup/outgroup thinking.
Anyone who has studied American history is aware of how prominent
adversity was, and continues to be, for African Americans. In this
post, I am discussing five novels that blur distinctions between black and
white and bring into sharp focus what it means to be human.
1.The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom
Part of Grissom’s genius in this highly rated book (almost 5 star
Amazon average from over 4,000 reviewers and strongly recommended on
my Facebook feed) is that the narrator is an indentured servant from
Ireland and straddles the race relation lines. She is physically
white, but she is low enough class to be able to create relationships
and is raised by the slaves where she lives, but also because she ie
white is capable of upward mobility. She spends part of her life in a
black family and part of her life in a white one. She has a rare
perspective on life in both strata. This book is compelling, full of
drama and intensity and characters that the reader just has to care
about, even the less appealing ones. Grissom demonstrates how vices
don’t ignore class lines and there are many definitions of abundance
and poverty. This book got me through a weekend that I had to cancel
important plans with a good friend to care for a vomiting and
miserable toddler. A book is good if it can help you forget
2. The House Girl, Tara Conklin
This book is all about self actualizing. A legal case on slave
reparations helps the main character, a young up and coming attorney
named Lina to reconsider what is really important in a life that she
has worked doggedly to create for herself. An only partly lived life
that has been busy and focused externally to avoid dealing with the
dark truths of her existence. This runs parallel to a story of a young
slave girl who cannot accept her lot in life as a slave. Josephine is
sure from the beginning of the novel that things need to change and
works on changing them, where Lina slowly works to discover what needs
to change in her own life. Through her discovery of Josephine she
moves more toward the person who she really means to be. Black and
white, both women are determining and working toward what life they
want most. I love interwoven stories and changing foci between two
story lines. I need that shift to keep me able to focus my attention.
This novel was slow in parts, especially the beginning, and two story
lines was able to keep me hanging on.
3. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
I read this book a second time for the purposes of this post. I blew
right through it in two days. Unlike the previous two noted books, no
one is actually enslaved in this book, but distinctions abound. A white girl running away from her father and trying to determine if her late mother really wanted her and finding a black woman to look up to and teach her about herself and become part of her life in the 1960’s South. The girl fits in in a way that she never did in her previously white world. This book has a magic to it that I cannot let go of, despite the sadness that is also in it. Which is why I also read:
4. The Invention of Wings, also Sue Monk Kidd
Somewhat like The Secret Life of Bees, but more so, The Invention of Wings is about finding a place in the world. The characters in the Invention of Wings are assigned roles by merit of birth, being in a pre-civil war Charleston, but for neither main character does it really fit. Neither a slave girl (Handful) nor an upper class white woman (Sarah Grimke) content in the roles assigned to them by birth. The book starts out with Handful being given to Sarah as a gift for her eleventh birthday and Sarah’s deep discomfort with it, despite her young age and the fact that this was the norm of her time and in her class. Handful is not only managing her own place in the world but also dealing with a mother who cannot accept her lower status and the drama that comes from her efforts to buck the system. This novel is deep and beautiful and about women trying to be influential in a bigger picture that was not really meant for them, and so it is inevitably sad. Color and social status aside, they are both seeking a place in the world.
5. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
This is the only book in this post without a white main character. As such, I almost did not include it, as it is really more about being African American in the 1930’s-40’s than it is about the paths of people white as well as black. However, it is too relevant and uplifting, and what African American in that time and place did not feel the socioeconomic effects of his or her skin color? This book is about character change and finding an emotional fulfillment in life through love and hard work and being willing to grow. The characters that the reader cares about most all grow in this book and become happier people despite how they were born. It starts out very depressing, however, so push through that part. The beginning only makes the end more satisfying. I am not saying that how these people overcome makes their limited opportunities and discrimination in the first place okay, but I can admire how people in adverse circumstances carve out their own happiness. And that might be why I am so drawn to historical fiction, in addition to learning about other times. I love seeing how people make positives out of difficulty. It is what makes my job fulfilling as well. I want to post eventually on Pulitzer Prize winners and I will probably include this book there, too.
As usual, what am I missing? Leave a comment below!!