They moved north but brought the South along with them
Edward P. Jones writes about the descendants of slaves and the community they created in Washington, D.C.
Edward P. Jones's prose is so richly textured and assured that he makes other good writers seem merely clever by comparison. You need read only a few lines of "The Known World," his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a slave-owning former slave in the antebellum South, to realize you're in the hands of a master craftsman.
His new collection of stories, All Aunt Hagar's Children, like his National Book Award-nominated debut, "Lost in the City," again displays this writer's deep sense of humanity. His characters are drawn from those to whom he dedicates his book, "the multitudes who came up out of the South for something better, something different." His setting is the city to which they migrated, Washington, D.C.
But Jones's Washington has little to do with the government buildings and art galleries many associate with the nation's capital. That "other Washington, known for façade and neglect," the municipality which pours its resources into cherry trees while allowing neighborhoods and schools to disintegrate, only gets glancing references in these stories.
Instead, Jones's focus is the fundamental decency and sense of community that African-American descendants of slaves brought with them when they moved north in search of opportunities. Stories set in the first half of the 20th century are filled with neighbors who look out for one another – by taking turns escorting an abused woman to work lest her violent ex-boyfriend return, or by letting a father know that his 16-year-old daughter was kissed by a cheeky date at the movies.
More contemporary stories, however, highlight a fraying social fabric and explore the struggle for dignity in a rough world. Caesar Matthews, the murderer and drug dealer featured in "Lost in the City," survives seven years in prison only to face, on his release, the gulf between him and his family. To preserve a shred of self-worth, he lovingly prepares a friend's body for burial.
A woman who loses her eyesight also temporarily loses her good sense and falls in with a bad crowd in "Blindsided." A nuanced portrait of intraracial class tensions emerges in "Bad Neighbors," when so-called "trash" turn out to have more heart than the rich professionals who disdain them.
In one of the most moving stories, an auto mechanic with three successful daughters and "the gentlemanly quality of the countrified South about him" looks forward to a carefree retirement. Instead, he comes smack against social erosion when he finds himself raising his wayward son's two children, rescued from the foster care system. He wonders if it's punishment for an adulterous affair he had years earlier.
Many of the 14 stories chronicle turning points – though Jones's range is invariably broader, weaving in collateral strands, subplots, and final tallies of marriages and offspring. The result is the complexity and unhurried tone one expects more from novels than from short fiction.
"Tapestry" depicts a young bride in 1933 hesitating on the threshold of what will turn out to be a long, full life in Washington. She finds reassurance in the instant camaraderie among her fellow travelers on the train north from Mississippi. Jones writes, "None of them could know that the cohesion born and nurtured in the South would be but memory in less than two generations."
Although traditions and superstitions factor in several stories, education is a recurrent theme, the portal to a better life. Many of his characters, whose fathers stopped at high school, earn multiple higher degrees to become teachers, doctors, and scientists. In "Spanish in the Morning," a woman describing her heralded entry into kindergarten notes that she inherited from her mother "the notion that the universe could be lassoed and tamed."
In "Root Worker," Dr. Glynnis Holloway learns that science has limits and that Southern roots are important in more ways than one. "Sometimes black people from the South need to go back home," advises the woman hired to tend the doctor's mentally ill mother after conventional medicine has failed them.
Strong matriarchs are the celebrated and lamented caryatids in Jones's world. In the sobering title story, a Korean veteran's mother tries to keep her grown son in line. "You see what war does?" she comments. "It makes a man lose all natural fear of his mother."
"Forever ain't as long as it used to be," an alcoholic husband retorts when reminded of his broken promises in "Common Law," about an abusive relationship's reverberations through the neighborhood. Perhaps not, but these exquisitely resonant stories deserve to endure.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.