Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"The Keepers of the House"
Shirley Ann Grau
It took me 42 days to read the first 200 pages of Shirley Ann Grau’s 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Keepers of the House” and one sitting to finish its final 109 pages.  During those first 200 pages the book seemed more anecdotal than directional.  What is this that I am reading, a family genealogy? I wondered.  I thought about quitting the book for one that adhered more to the default formula of popular fiction-writing: grab the reader’s interest on the very first page, establish quickly an easily discernible conflict, present events not typical of ordinary life, encourage the reader to live the main character’s defeats and triumphs, and leave everybody satisfied at the end.  But then, much to my satisfaction, “The Keepers of the House” took off.
Shirley Ann Grau’s novel is about real life, as it was lived in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s in rural Alabama.  More specifically, it is about how racism negatively affected every individual’s life in that locality at that time.  Her depiction is not superficial, contrived, or stereotypical.  It is complex because she knows her subject matter thoroughly, her characters are complex, and racism is complicated, being the end result of any number of defective human characteristics.  Grau takes her time (probably too much, i.e. detailing their histories) developing her three main characters.  We come to like and respect them, despite their fallibilities.  We see that each is a good person.  We discover that each at least once rejects conspicuously the implicit rules of racism.  Each suffers hard consequences.  The question asked of the reader at the end of the novel is this: Was each character’s act/acts of conscience worth his/her personal sacrifice? 
William Howland’s great great grandfather had created a farm between the forks of the Providence River after the conclusion of the War of 1812.  By the time William inherited it, the property his Howland predecessors had owned had increased considerably in size and wealth.  William was land rich.  Inhabitants of the area accepted him, despite his behavioral quirks.  He was, after all, “a real Howland, best blood in the county, best land, and most of the money.”  When the major events of the novel occur, he is a widower, his son and daughter are both dead, and he is responsible for the continued welfare of his daughter’s only child, Abigail Howland Mason.
The granddaughter Abigail grows up in her grandfather’s rural house separated geographically and socially from her white peers.  She is an only child.  Her playmates are her grandfather’s three children by his black mistress, Margaret Carmichael.  When rare occasions made interaction possible, white children always declined to play with them.  The children of William Howland’s black workers refused as well, Margaret’s children’s blood being tainted.  Because of her grandfather’s views about race were moderate, because she associated daily with Margaret and her children, and because she was rarely exposed to the blatant racism of the people in the immediate area, Abigail grew up less susceptible to the lure of racial superiority and entitlement.
Margaret is a descendant of a “freejack” black man.  Freejacks were slaves who fought with General Andrew Jackson against the British at New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812 on the promise made by Jackson that he would free them after the war.  Thereafter, freejacks scattered.  Many settled in the Alabama swamp area close to Howland property.  Margaret’s father was a white road construction worker who had spent two weeks in the swamp area where Margaret’s mother lived.  Margaret’s mother abandoned her when she was eight, seeking to find, rumor said, her white lover.  William met Margaret when she was 18 -- he, on a lark, searching the swamps for a still and subsequently hiring her as his housekeeper.  To untrained Northern eyes, all three of their children could pass as being White.  At the age of eleven, upon Margaret’s insistence, each child was sent to a private school in the North never to return.  In the North they might have a future.  In the South, despite their skin color, they would forever be regarded by Whites and Blacks alike as “niggers.” 
There is much more about these characters that you must discover.
Not surprisingly, this Pulitzer Prize-winning author is a skill scene-writer.  Here are two of my favorites.
Margaret’s oldest child Robert contracts pneumonia.  William rides into town to fetch the town doctor. 
My grandfather didn’t tell Harry Armstrong who was sick until they were on the road out of town, and driving steadily on.
Harry Armstrong just shook his head, unbelieving.  “God damn it, Will, you got me out on a night like this for a nigger kid?”
“Looks like,” my grandfather said.
“You said it was little Abbey.”
“No I never,” my grandfather told him.  “You figured that yourself.”
“Jesus Christ,” Harry Armstrong said.  “I got to be thinking of my practice.  … God damn it, Will, with your money you got no cause to worry, but I got to figure what your damn-fool trick’s going to cost me.”
“I’ll pay you,” Will said flatly.
“When people find out I treated a nigger kid, what kind of a practice do you reckon I have left?”
“To hell with them,” my grandfather said.
They eventually agreed to circulate the story that Armstrong had been called to treat Abigail for a sudden onset of small pox.
This second scene follows Abigail’s expulsion from college – she had attended an elopement of a friend who was a Catholic.  Her grandfather was angry with her because he now had to make many telephone calls to influential people to get her reinstated.  Abigail is angry that he is angry and angry about being expelled.  Margaret spends time with her in the kitchen while William makes his calls in a separate room.
“You hungry?” Margaret asked.
“Didn’t have lunch?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Soup,” she said.  “Take some.”
She was sitting by the kitchen table.  She’d been waiting for me.
“Is he here?”
She smiled.  “Where else he going?”
“On the phone?”
“Since you flounced out the house.”
“Well, I got reason to flounce,” I told her.  “The old bastards at school …”
“He don’t like you talking like that,” she said quietly.
“Okay.  Okay.” I went and looked into the soup pot.
“Abby.”  I jumped.  She almost never called me by name.  “You ought called to him this morning, not just leave a message with me.”
“I didn’t want to talk to him.  I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say.”
“You hurt his feelings.”
“Well, they hurt mine.”
She chuckled.  “Maybe you better stay out here with me, till the both of you quiet down some.”
I took the ladle and stirred the soup, not answering.
“He been on the phone all day,” Margaret said.  “He’ll fix it for you.”
There was pride and satisfaction in her tone that I hadn’t heard before.  “I don’t want it fixed.”
“Keep out his way tonight, child,” she said.  “And take yourself some soup.  All that temper’s nothing but empty insides.”
I had supper with Margaret, while my grandfather stayed by the telephone in the living room.  In a little while she brought him a sandwich and sat there to keep him company.
Another writing skill that Shirley Ann Grau demonstrates is her use of sharp sensory detail to convey presence and evoke emotion.   Here is an example.
William began to remember how a swamp smelled, thick and sweet.  And how the water bubbled with rising gases when you stirred it with a stick, how the crawfish hung on the underside of a log, and you picked them off like fruit.  The sharp angle a swimming moccasin made—the jut of the neck and the V of waves fluttering out behind.  The close smell of unmoving water, of decay.  The roar of gators mating, and their wobbling waddle as they launched themselves into the water.  The sweet sick odor of the nest banks, the wallows.
Finally, what Grau writes is completely authentic.  She knows her people.  She knows how they live.  She tells us that cotton pickers have bigger hands than other people.  She writes about how a large, quality wedding is organized, about the seasonal operations of a large farm, about how a husband reacts to the death of his wife from a sudden fever, about how female relatives hammer a widower to remarry, about how subscribing to a New York newspaper brands you a traitor, about how more traumatic it was for a black person to have White blood mixed with his or her Black blood than it was to be pure Black-blooded.  And so much more.
I did persevere; I dud finish the book; it was well worth the time spent.