Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Recent Reading

Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins by Elizabeth Stone. All about family stories and their effect on individuals. Definitely worth reading -- and discussing with your family. I'd figured when I picked it up at the Salvation Army that it focused on the roles played and stories told about the current generation, but I was pleased to discover that it had a much broader scope.

God knows the family stories told about my third-great-grandmother, M.L.T. Hartman, were a great help to me in finding my way. Not only was she a farmer who reared eight children, she was also a teacher, a historian, and a recognized poet in her day. She wrote books and once drove a team of horses through a tornado; she wanted to get to camp meeting, and she did. M.L.T. was a formidable-looking woman with the high cheekbones, stocky build, and downward slanted eyes so characteristic of my mother's family -- all of which I inherited. She died at age 79, doing chores in the barn. Bear in mind that M.L.T. lived her entire life in the nineteenth century; her grandfather was a local hero of the Revolutionary War. (I have stayed in the house he built, which is now a bed-and-breakfast.) Her example helped me reconcile my need to write with the need to stay connected with my maternal family history.

A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly. A compulsively readable murder mystery written in haunting prose. Benjamin January, the title character, is a dark-skinned man of mixed race in 1833 New Orleans. Trained as a surgeon and as a musician, he is caught in many painful transitions and polarities: the old French culture and the new American attitudes; the slave society into which he was born and the very different world of the gens libre du couleur bought by his mother's status as a white man's mistress; and the Paris world he has just left for the New Orleans where he was raised.

It's an astonishingly powerful book, complex and humane, and never letting twentieth-century racial or political attitudes override the realities of the nineteenth-century slaveholding world. It's painful to read the scenes where Benjamin January has to swallow insults and violence to save his life, or play stupid (we would call it shucking and jiving) as white society demands, while concealing his ferocious intelligence and pride.

I am so glad this is the first in a series. I will be reading them all.

Oddly enough, I've also been reading Lalita Tademy's Cane River, which begins in 1834 and explores the same society. Very fine -- but I think Barbara Hambly is a better writer.

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