America's peculiar institution
Slavery has never seemed more strange than in Edward Jones's new novel
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Henry's widow, Caldonia, quickly decides against freeing "her legacy," choosing instead to maintain the plantation in the spirit of Henry's gentle example. "Her husband had done the best he could," she thinks, "and on Judgment Day his slaves would stand before God and testify to that fact." Occasionally, a child is worked to death or a pregnant woman labors in the field till she miscarries, but Caldonia sheds sincere tears, comforts the parents, and considers whether she should buy insurance against further losses of her property.Skip to next paragraph
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As a single woman with a large business to run, she's encouraged by a collection of family and friends, other free blacks, some of whom own their own slaves, too. One of the most troubling is Fern, Caldonia's prim teacher of literature and etiquette. Together, they keep the irony of their position well buried, while socializing in a kind of racial terrarium maintained by William Robbins, the county's wealthiest white farmer. Estranged from his own wife but protected by his political power, he loves a black woman in town and openly adores his two mulatto children. The Townsend plantation with its little coterie of free slave-owning blacks gives his favorites a place to play and refine themselves.
In one of several shifts to the late 19th century, a Canadian historian interviews Fern, Caldonia's teacher, about those days on the plantation. "All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do," she says without any hint of guilt or remorse. "We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did." Jones uses that same tone of historical distance throughout, a tone that amplifies the grotesque mingling of affection and cruelty that infected these people, black and white.
In the center of this moral kaleidoscope stands the sheriff, John Skiffington, an earnest Christian, dedicated to the objective application of law and convinced that "the law always cares" for everyone equally. It's a doomed endeavor, of course, but as Caldonia's plantation begins to collapse, Skiffington fails to realize that the legal system he's sworn to uphold is not objective and that he cannot remain clean within it.
The scrambled collection of events and characters makes this a difficult story to enter, but that structure eventually accounts for much of the novel's evocative power. Jones has a kind of biblical style that suggests whole lives in a few stark details from a perspective that's alternately microscopic and telescopic. It's a technique that resists our efforts to keep these events in some unrecoverable past. The troubling implications of his story leach in through hairline cracks all over the twin shells of antebellum nostalgia and Northern piety. Every time Caldonia cheerfully reminds her friends, "We are all worthy of one another," the legacy of slavery sounds more complex and unresolved.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.