Day 785: All Aunt Hagar’s Children

Cover for All Aunt Hagar's ChildrenAs 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.

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Day 535: The Known World

Cover for The Known WorldBest Book of the Week!
I found The Known World disorienting for some time. I think this was because the standard blurb describes it as being about Henry Townsend, an African-American owner of slaves who is mentored by his white owner. The novel starts with Henry Townsend’s death, and I kept waiting for it to circle back around and cover his history. But it’s not so much about him as about the world around him. Once I settled in to the world Jones creates, I began to appreciate the novel.

Henry Townsend’s act of becoming a slave owner is so shocking to his parents that they refuse to stay in the house he built with his slave, Moses. His parents, Augustus and Mildred Townsend, worked hard to buy themselves and their son free. Augustus at one point muses that he may have made a mistake in buying Mildred first, leaving Henry too long under the influence of William Robbins, his white master and the richest man in the county. We actually don’t see much mentoring going on between Robbins and Henry, except when Robbins chides Henry for rough-housing with his new slave Moses.

Jones’ focus is on a larger story than that of one man. His story is about the life on Henry Townsend’s plantation and in the county and how it is affected by slavery—particularly by the decision of African-Americans to own slaves.

At first, I found it difficult to keep all the characters straight—or even the timeframe—for Jones has a habit of fixing on a character for a brief moment and telling about that character’s entire life. He also interjects facts and census details about Manchester County. These details are so convincing that he had me believing it was a real place. It is not.

This nonlinear narrative means we don’t fully know any one character. Henry himself is one of the biggest enigmas, and we see more of his slave Moses than we do of Henry himself. Certainly, a handful of characters are more important than others, but that handful keeps changing. Still, some threads of the people’s stories are captivating, and even surprising. Does Augustus, kidnapped by unscrupulous slave dealers when he is returning from a job, ever see his home again? Did Moses actually murder his wife Priscilla in hopes of marrying Henry’s widow?

If I had to state briefly the theme of this unusual novel, I would say that slavery corrupts. Characters who start out with good intentions do despicable things because they have absolute power over other people. When we see the effect of the “institution” of slavery on people, especially upon Henry’s blameless parents, it is sometimes shocking.

There are true villains in this novel but no heroes. Some of the characters are doing the best they can; others are not.