“They say once you’ve had the shackle on you, it never comes off,” says a character in Kind One, Laird Hunt’s haunting meditation on the crushing legacy of slavery in the American South. A small but powerful chorus of voices, led by a white woman named Ginny Lancaster, pieces together the story of a shocking reversal of fate that reverberates over a period of 100 years.
Ginny was just 14 when her mother’s smooth-talking second cousin, Linus Lancaster, came to their home in Indiana looking for a wife. He promised the world: a mansion, fine clothing, servants and freedom for Ginny to pursue her education. But upon her arrival at the pig farm her new husband calls “Paradise”, Ginny finds only a cabin “90 miles from nowhere”, tended to by two slave girls, Zinnia and Cleome, and their brother, Alcofibras.
(Coffee House; US: Sep 2012)
(Scribner; US: Oct 2012)
Isolated and inexperienced, Ginny at first befriends the girls and tries to protect them from punishments: “I helped them sweep and I helped them pluck and I helped them darn and helped them sew… and once one rosy summer day when Linus Lancaster was looking for her with a switch in his hand, I didn’t tell him I’d seen Cleome drop the bucket into the well and dangle herself down its rope.”
But Linus proves to be an abusive tyrant who burns Ginny’s schoolbooks and beats her and his slaves for the slightest infraction. When the childless Ginny turns 20, he renames her “Mother”, and turns his sexual attentions to the two girls. Desperate to hold her place in a savage pecking order and terrified of her husband, Ginny takes to beating the girls herself, a habit she’ll live to regret when Linus is killed and Zinnia and Cleome turn the tables on their mistress.
The story, told in three parts that loop back and forth in time between 1830 and 1933, moves from Indiana to Kentucky and back, while other narrators — including Zinnia, Alcofibras and even the ghost of Linus Lancaster — add their voices. Through a scrim of hypnotic and eerie scenes, dreams, folktales and memories, Ginny’s past gradually emerges, offering glimpses of the reasons for her damaged psyche.
Though the events of Kind One are unrelentingly dark, Hunt (The Impossibly, The Exquisite) serves up the horror in small doses, creating a hell where less is horrifyingly more. As Zinnia and Cleome enact their revenge, this kind of chilling abbreviation has the effect of half-remembered scenes from a nightmare, like this scrap of dialogue as the girls tie Ginny to a tree.
“Stand up straight now, Mother.” “Please don’t have nothing to do with it, Mother.” “The woods will eat all that hollerin’, Mother.” “You can cry out those tears later, Mother.” Reinforcing the themes of helplessness, retribution and vengeance are the African folk tales Alcofibras retells to his sisters and Ginny, where few humans appear — only onions that break their chains and skulls with eyes and winking black bark that reappears whenever it’s thrown away.
The characters in Kind One present a cross-section of slavery’s tragedies: the loss of humanity on both sides, children left motherless, the disappearance of identity and culture, lethal cruelty. Ginny yearns for her lost innocence, for the days when she and the sisters wove daisy chains together, and Ginny could still see “the light of a pretty, unhurt place shining on us all.” But she can’t escape the scorched earth of her own imprisonment or the complicity that earned her the slaves’ enduring hatred: “I had been down in hell and that hell was not a place you left no matter how far you hauled your bones away from it.” Nor can Zinnia, who helped put her there and who shares those memories, ignore the call to put things right, years later when “the old days come to visit.”
As Ginny says of Alcofibras’ folk tales, Kind One walks out the door with you. “It follows you out the door to your work or your rest then jumps into your head and runs around inside it like a spider.” Yet the book’s small acts of kindness and mercy — bright beacons in the night — never go out, shining their faint light on the endurance of the human spirit.
If Hunt’s novel imagines slavery’s legacy as the overpowering guilt and shame shared by black and white victims alike, a new book by Janis Owens (My Brother Michael, The Schooling of Claybird Catts) looks at a white community that refuses to examine its collective conscience about a shocking racial crime hidden for decades.
Owens, raised in Marianna, Florida, has relatives who witnessed the brutal killing of Claude Neal in 1934, one of the last of the “spectacle lynchings” that drew thousands of onlookers — some of whom came by invitation. In American Ghost her fourth novel, Owens unpacks that history via a relationship between a troubled Pentecostal teenager, Jolie Hoyt, and Sam Lense, a Jewish fieldworker conducting research on Indian tribes in her “backwoods Cracker paradise”. The time is 1996. The place, Hendrix, Florida.
Jolie hails from old-blood, Scotch-Indian-”low-country geechees” who date back to the founding of Hendrix and are said to be “swamp running savages” with no love for outsiders. Sam’s well-kept secret is that his great-grandfather, a Lithuanian refugee, was the storekeeper whose shooting death triggered the lynching.
After grilling Jolie’s father and uncles about the incident, Sam accepts an invitation to accompany them on a fishing trip, during which he has a near-fatal accident that inspires him to leave town. Years later, an encounter with a elderly black man brings him back to Hendrix — where the town’s shameful secret finally worms its way into the light.
Owens’ detailed and well-researched portrait of west Florida bloodlines benefits from her obvious affection for its cast of colorful characters, and her descriptions of small-town life are a joy to read: “He just followed along, holding the door as they entered the sizzling glory of the old Formica-and-linoleum café, frequented by fans of grease and good value.”
Midway through the novel, one of two elderly African-American brothers who return to Hendrix for a valuable relic from the lynching, observes that the murder has never been redressed: “No celebrated injustice had long been set to right with reparations and an official apology — or neatly tied up with a Hollywood ending.” Don’t expect any here, either. If there’s any redemption, it’s in the details — rich and at times almost too real to have been invented — that unearth the culpable townspeople, and in the relationship between Jolie and Sam, who take it on themselves to make amends.