As in his wonderful novel, The Known World, Edward P. Jones attempts to depict an entire community in the short stories included in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. This goal is more difficult to accomplish, because the community is a much larger one—the African-American citizens of Washington, D.C.—and the stories take place over much of the 20th century.
Several of the stories have to do with the migration of the characters from the rural South to the city. In “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” Ruth and Aubrey Patterson are a hopeful young couple from across the river in Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. Ruth, though, is homesick, and when she finds a baby boy in a tree one night, Aubrey becomes jealous. This story is first in the collection, but the last story echoes it. Anne Perry, of rural Mississippi, meets George Carter, a sleeping car porter, and moves with him to Washington. In the story “Tapestry,” Jones uses a technique he also employed in The Known World where he breaks off to tell Anne’s entire life. But he twice tells what her life might have been had she married a different man.
The emphasis on rural roots is also important in “Root Worker.” Dr. Glynnis Holloway’s mother has been treated for mental illness for years until her care worker, Maddie Williams, talks the reluctant doctor into consulting a root worker, a wise woman. In the rural North Carolina setting under the care of Dr. Imogene, her mother improves, and Dr. Holloway surprises herself by apprenticing herself to Dr. Imogene.
Another strong theme is that of moving into the middle class. It pervades many of the stories but particularly “Bad Neighbors.” When Sharon is in high school, her family has made it to the middle class, but they are disturbed when the Staggs move in across the street, for they are not considered respectable enough. Sharon’s father is responsible for encouraging the neighbors to club together to buy the Staggs’ house so they can evict the family. Years later, Sharon realizes some truths when she is saved by Terrance Stagg.
Perhaps the thread I least identified with was the presence of folk lore as if it were real, a sort of magical realism. For example, in “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River,” Laverne spends a lively afternoon at the grocery store fending off the devil. Years ago, her grandmother got away from him by wading into the Atlantic Ocean to go to heaven.
Although overall, the stories are not as effective as the novel The Known World, they are compassionate to even the lowest of their characters. I particularly found touching “Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister,” about Noah Robinson, whose grandson Adam was lost after his drug addict parents abandoned him. The little boy is found, illiterate and frightened, and Noah faces a future of raising his grandchildren instead of the carefree retirement he envisioned.