Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: Jubilee

(Reclaimed from Blogjob, where the tags were American Civil Warhistorical fictioninterracial sex in the nineteenth centurynovel based on family legendromance novelswomen’s fiction.)

Title: Jubilee
Author: Margaret Walker
Date: 1966 / 1988
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin / Bantam
ISBN: 0-553-27383-3
Length: 416 pages
Quote: “I don’t see how come that make Big Missy hate me so bad. I ain’t done nothing.”
What makes Mrs. Dutton hate Elvira is of course the open secret of Elvira’s ancestry. With her blonde hair and “milky white” complexion, enslaved Elvira is obviously the sister—practically the twin—of Lillian Dutton. (My paperback edition of the book, as shown above, features a Black woman on the front cover. This would have to be Elvira’s foster mother, Sally. Where's Elvira?) Mrs. Dutton is one of those dark brunettes who would, if it hadn’t been considered slanderous at the time, have been asked about possible African ancestors of their own...which accounts for the virtual-twin look of the Dutton half-sisters. Both girls are blonde like their father.
Enslaved half-siblings of the heirs occupied a peculiar position in several rich families in early U.S. history. Probably each case was handled differently. While her darker siblings are merely slaves, Elvira gets the full Cinderella treatment; Mr. Dutton doesn’t want to sell her off, or use her for hard labor or prostitution, but neither can he bring himself to claim her as his daughter (although everyone in town knows she is, and non-local acquaintances always think she’s White). So she’s kept in the house as a cook, where Mrs. Dutton can abuse her freely and sell off any other slave who seems to be her friend, specifically including Sally.
Both Dutton daughters are pretty and attract admirers. Lillian naturally gets the debutante season and fancy wedding; Elvira gets to cook all the extra food, knowing that she’s likely to be accused of poisoning the guests if anything is seasoned wrong and dosed with purgatives “to find out what she’s been stealing” if she looks happy. Elvira, perhaps due to disagreements between Mr. and Mrs. Dutton, is sent out to meet an attractive Free Black man who wants to marry her, but her father refuses either to set her free or to sell her to someone who will. They’re allowed to spend nights together and produce two children, without the punitive “medication” Mrs. Dutton freely dispenses when other house slaves seem interested in sex, but they’re not allowed the legal status of marriage.
Then the war breaks out. While watching her father, her wicked stepmother, and her half-brother die Elvira is notified that the father of her children is dying. Then she’s notified that she’s free to marry another man who wants to be the stepfather of her children. After making arrangements for the care of Lillian, who gets the sort of ending her mother deserves, Elvira goes west to start her life as a free woman.
Like Gone with the WindJubilee took its author ten years to write. However, the stories are completely different, and so are the writing processes that led to them. Margaret Mitchell spent a great deal of time working out a fictional plot that, consciously or not, turned the cultural history of Georgia into a romance—which is why Scarlett bears little resemblance to any actual woman living or dead. (Plenty of women may be as selfish as Scarlett, but in the real world men who know them as well as Rhett and Ashley knew Scarlett don’t stay “in love” with them.) Margaret Walker spent her time researching the historical details to flesh out a family legend. Elvira Dutton was a real woman—as posthumously re-visioned by an adoring granddaughter. For those who read either story as a mere romance, the difference is that one can imagine Elvira as a good friend to have.
For me, personally, the detail that adds a special charm to this book is Elvira’s choice of suitors. She’s clearly attracted to both, and both have displayed heroic characters. How is a woman to choose? The word “introvert” is not used in the book, but...
What’s not to love? Well, there are a few obvious flaws in Walker’s novelistic style. Unable to find a credible way to weave war news into the story, she drops in chunks of historical narrative, sometimes opening them with the clumsy device of “Elvira didn’t know that...” And, even in the tensest moments, she makes her characters recite long unlikely speeches.
However, people who enjoy novels have been agreeing for several years now that, given a chance, the story carries them across these rough patches. Few fictional heroines deserve a happy ending as much as Elvira does, and although readers can guess that she’s going to get one they want to find out how, when, and with whom it will be. I'm not often moved to any emotion by a novel; I cried the first time I read this one.
The minimum price for books I sell online is $5 per book + $5 per package (for shipping). Really, when the authors no longer need 10% of that price, you don't need to feel bad about finding a better price elsewhere. However, if you buy Jubilee from me, you may add it to a package with one or more Fair Trade Books for only one shipping fee, which may make the overall price more competitive.
(P.S.: Amazon is tempting its Associates to try something new. It's not new, it's "I-frames"! In this part of the world, when "I-frames" are run through any computer, the code is automatically scrambled so that it can't possibly work.)