Lena Grove is looking for her man. The father of her unborn child. He told her that he’d go ahead, find a job and set up home, then he’d send for her. But he never did write. So she decided to go out and track him down. An unmarried pregnant woman walking the roads. But Lucas Burch, who doesn’t go by that name any longer, isn’t really a man to depend on. He has recently left, his job and is working selling whiskey with Joe Christmas. In Prohibition era America. Christmas is another enigma. He just showed up in town and started work at the mill one day. Never talked to anyone much. Never socialised. Then one day he stopped working there. His other business became much more profitable.
The book then tells us his back story. He is an orphan, he may have some African-American heritage, although he “passes” as white at first in the town.1 His past is not a happy one. And his future isn’t going to be happy either. He isn’t a nice character. Not many in the book are really. Lena I liked, but she didn’t have much chance to shine.
I really liked the first quarter of the novel. The language is beautiful, and while I didn’t really warm to any of the characters or the plot, nothing really put me off it. But then the constant racism and sexism and classism. It just got wearying. And I didn’t have anything to enjoy about it, or admire in it, and it was quite long. And the narrative style was all hoping about in time and in memory and from one character to another, none of whom I could invest in. And so much senseless violence, it makes you despair of people.
And I say that having read the likes of Beloved where there is even more violence and wrong-doing because it is about the whole institution of slavery. Yet there were characters you could feel for. I couldn’t feel for anyone in this book.
Not my cup of tea.
And yet I can appreciate a lot of what it was trying to say. So many outcasts. So many things wrong with society. I think it was just too bleak for me.
That’s a horrible phrase, passes for white. As though being black was a fail. but it is the term used in the book and I guess is of its time, for what that is worth. ↩