There is a tall stack of literature that deals with slavery. There’s Toni Morrison, there’s William Faulkner, there’s even Mark Twain. So when I was looking for something to read, it was only with apprehension when I held this novel, yet another one on slavery. There’s a lot to say about people owning people, but what of black people owning their own black people?
This is a new take on slavery. Why would anyone want to be the master of something that mirrors himself? Although I have no answer for that, I could say that Henry, the blackest master that Virginia ever saw, wants to prove a point. He wants to show people that black people can be better masters than white people. To demonstrate it, he needs to buy slaves, and the available color of slaves that the setting of this novel has to offer is the same as that of his color of skin.
The slaves that Henry bought are confused themselves: what has happened to the world? This isn’t what they know of the world. Blacks aren’t supposed to own blacks, but there you have it. They are slaves to someone who is darker than their blackness.
But the master Henry soon dies, leaving his plantation to his rather passive wife, Caldonia, who insists on treating slaves as humanely as possible. After Henry’s death, the drama and action of the novel bursts like the great surge of water from a broken dam. How well could she handle the plantation? What will the slaves do about it? Will there ever be an end to this twisted kind of slavery?
No, people were viewing an enormous wall hanging, a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure–all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is, my Dear Caldonia, a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, paint. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map,” just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester. It is what God sees when He looks down on Manchester. At the bottom right-hand corner of this Creation there were but two stitched words. Alice Night.
Who is Alice Night? In this novel, she could possibly be the only lucid character despite the madness that keeps her going to every nook and cranny of the county. Her persistent presence is almost ominous that one can only trust her gut and understand her wit at the very end.
And what do we get from her aside from her cryptic monologues? What do we get from this historical tale filled with blunt narratives that still manage to keep the reader gripped with its raw intensity? What do we make of this novel that stretches from each end of two centuries, offering glimpses of the future while tackling the past?
It is almost impossible to provide a quick recap of the novel with the presence of so many well-developed characters, each with a story of his own. My own favorite is that kid Luke, ten years old, who had to die while working on the fields. He didn’t even manage to get beyond the middle part of the novel, and still, he’s the one that I remember when I conjure images from this novel.
I said that he had to die, which could only mean that there’s a grand design behind the scheme of things. He didn’t die for nothing then. When I met the author during a book signing, I asked him why. He said that Luke’s death is essential to break the chains of lies that is bound among the people of that plantation. I was surprised at this because I could no longer remember what lies he is referring to, but what astonishes me is that this death, which was only described in a few jabbing sentences, had a huge impact on the novel’s flow.
It just goes to show that a lot of thinking was given to the architecture of the novel. It is intricate, yes, even daunting for a reader who comes from a background of light reading, but the efforts expended are very rewarding. I don’t want to sound like I’m speaking from my high horse, but I found this novel a fluid and fast-paced read. I was amazed myself. Sure, there were struggles, but these were crowned with the heart-rending dramatizations of faith and hope for humanity.
And this carefully designed world can keel over in the slightest provocation. We think that the world, at least some part of it, is fixed, and that the higher forces placed this and that on its proper place and bestowed the virtue of immutability on every creation. But no, each day, the world spins on a different space, a different time.
What we know is not as secure as we want to imagine. Everything is fleeting. A master dies. A kid is no longer seen in the cotton fields. A couple becomes the root germ of a long line of descendants. A sheriff tries to save a life. A white man takes another life. Another white man falls in love with a black woman. Another black woman turns almost mad. And the mad turns to peace.
I could see this book being included in the general canon of world literature in a few more years. Further, I could imagine it being transferred from the award-winners to the classics shelf. It is destined to be one.