My husband and I spent the first dozen years of our married life traveling the United States, first in a 33 foot and then in a 40 foot motorhome. One of many beautiful drives we took was on the Natchez Trace Parkway between Nashville and Natchez. Very light traffic, no trucks, gorgeous weather and lots of interesting places to stop along the way. We were so fortunate to be able to take this leisurely drive across the country that too many Americans never get the opportunity to see.
Somewhere along the way, or perhaps in Natchez itself, we visited a living history site at an antebellum plantation house, complete with slave quarters. And while the main house was not as large as I had envisioned, the slave quarters were much darker and much smaller than anything I had ever imagined. Dirt floors and no windows. I remember being uncomfortable with the thought of one man owning another, and even more so at making a tourist attraction out of it. It struck me that this was not an era of which, as a nation, we should be proud. It seemed inappropriate somehow. And still, it was our history. Proud or not, it was still our history and one which should not be forgotten.
Attica Locke, who is married to a white man, once attended a bi-racial wedding at one of these plantation houses in Louisiana. This is what she wrote about seeing Oak Alley for the first time:
It was one of the most spectacular visions I’d ever laid eyes on, and I immediately felt sick to my stomach, my insides turning over a whole cocktail of conflicting emotions: rage and revulsion over what the antebellum scene represented, but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time. When I finally set foot on the actual land, around the back side of the plantation, where the slave cabins had once stood, I burst into tears. I had, it seemed, stepped inside my own history… wearing a $500 dress and satin heels. It was a poignant homecoming, one in which I felt like an imposter, a woman who had wandered into the wrong century. I couldn’t make sense of where I was, nor did I know what meaning to make of my presence there as a wedding guest. Was it a supreme act of disrespect, bordering on the macabre, this celebration on the bloodied grounds of a plantation? Or was the very fact of my presence there – the fact that, for one night at least, I had been invited into the big house – a sign of tremendous progress? In the twenty-first century, did the history of slavery still hold the same charge? Or were we somehow past all that?Her website, AtticaLocke.com, has a photo tour of the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana where she attended the wedding in 2004 and returned in 2009 to write The Cutting Season.
Caren Gray grew up in the shadow of the plantation, where her mother was the cook, playing with the boys who were the heirs to the estate until she left for Tulane and a life in New Orleans. Returning to the plantation four years before the novel starts, she brings her 9 year old daughter and a lifetime of memories. Her ancestors worked as slaves here, cutting the sugar cane in the surrounding fields that were now leased to a corporate farm that uses undocumented immigrants to work the land. One ancestor in particular, known only as Jason, stayed on after the Civil War, only to disappear mysteriously in 1872. His quarters, at the end of a row of slave cabins, still feels haunted to Caren.
Her history, that "love and filial longing" Locke writes about, roots her to this plantation, with it brooding sense of the past and its threatening power to undo the present.
It was during the Thompson-Delacroix wedding, Caren’s first week on the job, that a cottonmouth, measuring the length of a Cadillac, fell some twenty feet from a live oak on the front lawn, landing like a coil of rope in the lap of the bride’s future mother-in-law. It only briefly stopped the ceremony, this being Louisiana after all. Within minutes, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy on the groom’s side found a 12-gauge in the groundskeeper’s shed and shot the thing dead, and after, one of the cater-waiters was kind enough to hose down the grass. The bride and groom moved on to their vows, staying on schedule for a planned kiss at sunset, the mighty Mississippi blowing a breeze through the line of stately, hundred-year-old trees. The uninvited guest certainly made for lively dinner conversation at the reception in the main hall. By the time the servers made their fourth round with bottles of imported champagne, several men, including prim little Father Haliwell, were lining up to have their pictures taken with the viper, before somebody from parish services finally came to haul the carcass away.As manager, her mornings all start the same way, with a sweep of the grounds to note any work that needed doing. Her walk ends abruptly with the discovery of a woman's body in a shallow grave along the fence that is shared with the land farmed by the Groveland Corporation. The police seem to fix on one of her employees early in their investigation, even though there is no real evidence tying the young black man to the crime.
Still, she took it as a sign.
A reminder, really, that Belle Vie, its beauty, was not to be trusted.
That beneath its loamy topsoil, the manicured grounds and gardens, two centuries of breathtaking wealth and spectacle, lay a land both black and bitter, soft to the touch, but pressing in its power. She should have known that one day it would spit out what it no longer had use for, the secrets it would no longer keep.
Caren does not believe in his guilt, and and an ominous threat seems to hang over the plantation. That threat gains depth when Caren learns that her daughter may have seen the actual killer. Unsatisfied with the efforts of the local law enforcement, she calls on her daughter's father, a lawyer in the Obama Administration, to help as she seeks out the murderer.
Intelligent, complex and multi-layered, this mystery examines who we were, who we are, how we relate to each other and how we perceive our shared past. As in Black Water Rising, Attica Locke uses history as another character, to illuminate how we deal with issues that we try to forget but that continue to haunt us. The past never is over, it continues to reverberate in the present. Bodies don't stay buried. Secrets don't remain kept.
From an LA Times interview of Attica Locke:
Obama is almost in a character in your book, because one character works for him in Chicago, and I know you're going to be on a panel discussing the future of African American literature in the age of Obama. How is he affecting literature?
That conversation that's planned at the [Central] Library [on Oct. 9] is raising something other academics have raised but not specifically talking about art and literature — that part of black progress necessarily fractures us along the issue of class. And what that means is that a black literature that previously was steeped in issues of struggle, almost all black literature up to a certain point, that's what it all turned on. And as black political and economic ascent continues — that's what I think we all hope — I wonder how much room there is in our culture to hear black stories that are not rooted in those kinds of traditional issues of racial struggle.
And I've noticed that with readers, and frankly even with publishers, there has always been this kind of romance around the African American past, and those stories are the ones that really seem to speak to the American imagination — [such as] "The Help." I would even say that my first book had romance around the civil rights movement. When I have terror about this book, as deeply proud of it as I am, I do wonder where it fits in the spectrum, because we have a lot of intra-class stuff. Part of going forward is the fact that we're not all really on the same side anymore in as obvious a way.
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