Black Washington in the 20th century: We watch old social cohesion slip away

Review Short stories

September 03, 2006|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

All Aunt Hagar's Children

Edward P. Jones

Amistad / HarperCollins / 416 Pages / $25.95

The fourteen stories collected in Edward P. Jones' extraordinary All Aunt Hagar's Children traverse the length of the 20th century as it was experienced in black neighborhoods in and around Washington. Many of the characters that populate these stories have recently migrated to the capital and stand divided between meeting the demands of their urban setting and maintaining the customs and values that shaped their former lives in the deep South.

As the century wears on, the latter increasingly slip away: "None of them knew," reflects one character in the final story, "that the cohesion born and nurtured in the South would be but memory in less than two generations." As those bonds slip into memory, many of the characters work their way up the socioeconomic ladder. Most of them keep steadfast to a homespun Christian faith that colors their apprehension of all the world's workings as well as their own actions. And all of them surprise and surprise us, simply by being who they are. The strength of Jones' work is concentrated in his characters, vital and unruly beings all. It isn't just that these are psychologically acute portraits; each of them is a willful force in motion. I can't remember when I last met fictional characters as autonomously alive as those who live in this book.

One case in point is Laverne Shepherd, the pregnant 25-year-old wife and mother who runs into the Devil or her own conscience in a Safeway supermarket in the story "The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River." The woman we first meet, who seems too flustered by her encounter with temptation to remember what's on her shopping list, morphs over the course of the story into someone whose discomfiture may in fact spring from knowing temptation all too well.

The Devil himself cuts a dapper figure here, in Laverne's eyes at least: "The Devil was dressed in a splendid gray gabardine suit. ... The knot of his purple tie was situated just-so to the left of his Adam's apple, as if he had dressed himself without the benefit of a mirror. There was an almost boyish quality to the off-center knot, and for a moment Laverne thought it would have been the most natural thing in the world for a woman, any woman, to reach over and center the knot and end the whole gesture with a final tap of the finger on the knot. There. ... That'll do you for a while. ... The tie was held in place against his white shirt with a ruby tie clip, about the size of a candy fireball."

That last, bright detail is just right - the Laverne we come to know over the course of the story would think of that, especially facing the Devil and especially in the Safeway. Jones' faultless prose eschews gratuitous shows of virtuosity but graces the reader everywhere with flashes of wit that are notable for belonging more to his characters than to their author. These people are familiarly human, but they aren't without their mysteries. The promise of learning how their minds work, as much as of learning what will happen to them, is what propels the reader on through their stories.

The first story, "In the Blink of God's Eye," is also the earliest, set in 1901. Of its characters, a married couple who have moved to Washington from rural Virginia, the narrator says, "They were the children of once-upon-a-time slaves, born into a kind of freedom, but they had traveled down through the wombs with what all their kind had been born with - the knowledge that God had promised next week to everyone but themselves."

The shadows of slavery and racism, both casual and institutionalized, are a largely implicit backdrop to all of these stories, seldom directly remarked on but always looming behind the characters' circumstances, relationships and habits of thought. Still, racism remains part of the psychic landscape the characters act in, while the immediate drama proceeds from their relationships within their own families and communities, the latter of which often function like extended families.

Ties within neighborhoods and within bloodlines are generally so tight-knit that when they unravel in the later stories, the effect is frequently devastating. In "A Rich Man," a merry widower courts his own desolation by pursuing much younger women, not anticipating the rift in social expectations that has opened up between generations within his community - which proves no longer family. In "Bad Neighbors," class and social aspiration are the agents that divide a neighborhood into higher and lower "kinds" of black people, with rancorous consequences.

Yet even the most wrenching of these stories usually end on a note of hopefulness or comfort. That's in keeping with the great gentleness that pervades all aspects of this potent book: its ambling narrative pace, its embrace of its characters with all their faults, its fundamental humanity. More impressive, this gentleness is not naive but informed. Jones' fiction is unflinching from the loss and injustice that are everyday features of some lives in the U.S. - disproportionately the lives of racial minorities - but it's fundamentally generous, too.

Only Jones' third book, All Aunt Hagar's Children is evidence that the accolades showered on his novel The Known World (including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award) weren't premature but prescient. It's a work of the highest art.

Laura Demanski lives in Chicago, where she works at the University of Chicago Press and writes newspaper book reviews.

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