I suppose everyone has their own William Faulkner “story”. While a high school or college class likely turned most people into Faulkner-philes or -phobes, especially if they were asked to slog through The Sound and the Fury (1929) or Go Down, Moses (1942), the truth remains that almost 70 years after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, Faulkner remains one of the most baffling, yet intriguing novelists in the English language.
Perhaps one of the damning criticisms of his writing is that women and/or people of color feature in his writing, but they are often under-developed as characters. Novelist Suzanne Feldman discovered as such during her college years, and struggled to balance her appreciation for Faulkner’s artistic iconoclasm with the harsh acceptance that he was very specific about the characters he took the time to develop, and women and people of color barely received this attention.
In her 1969 thesis, Beverly Sheftall argued that women in Faulkner’s works fell into three categories: “‘The Unvanquished’ … Negro and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War or those who generally held their families together amid disruption and confusion”; “‘ghosts’ … de-sexed females — usually spinsters — who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’”; and “earth-mothers” who “scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to dominate them.”
Yet, rather than simply dwell on this irrefutable evidence, Feldman has chosen to do something unique. Absalom’s Daughters, her new novel, is not an attempt to rewrite Faulkner, as much as it is a cogent effort at bringing women and people of color, particularly Black women, to the forefront of a Faulkner-inspired work, and finally giving them the attention they so demand. In that way, this novel is not part of the all-too-common recent genre of setting classic works in modern settings, or through the new adventures of old characters. Absalom’s Daughters is instead a novel that attempts to resurrect the Southern gothic in a proto-Faulkner style.
Faulkner’s original novel, Absalom! Absalom (1936), told the tale of Thomas Sutpen and his marred legacy in Mississippi, before, during, and after the Civil War. It’s a complicated book, told in the famous Faulknerian style of multiple flashbacks; grammatically-unhinged prose; and a hyper realism focused on details and more details. Several female characters populate this novel, but using Sheftall’s typology, most of the women are “ghosts”. Indeed, one of the most famous quotes from the novel is that “years ago we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts.”
Absalom’s Daughters takes place in the early ’50s and centers on the lives of two women, Cassie and Judith, who are half-sisters with the same white father. Cassie’s “cinnamon” complexion is the result of her biracial heritage, but both of Judith’s parents are white. The girls are teenagers by 1954, and their childhoods are populated with the poverty of Great Depression-era Mississippi, and the de facto segregation of Jim Crow. Still, the sisters find a way to overcome their obvious differences and become inseparable.
Judith dreams of life in New York, and has been told that her voice will land her a singing career. Cassie is less convinced about leaving her home, but she’s enchanted by Judith’s fearlessness. Eventually, Judith’s white father runs away and his whereabouts are unknown until Judith intercepts a letter from an unknown acquaintance, asking her mother to come to Remington, Virginia to receive some part of the inheritance that she’s promised. This sets the stage for the rest of the novel.
Feldman’s work is undoubtedly Southern, but whereas Faulkner was attempting to document Southern, family life with often minute precision, Absalom’s Daughters is basically a teen road trip novel. Technically, the book is not aimed at young adults, but it’s hard to understand why, when so much of it seems whitewashed, especially with what we know of life during that era.
Judith and Cassie’s journey from Heron Neck, Mississippi to Remington, Virginia takes place in the spring of 1954, one year before the murder of Emmitt Till, and while there are muted references to the KKK, there’s an almost naïve understanding of history that accompanies their trip. That two young women, one black and one white, could drive across the South and basically sing their way from city to city, state to state without once being attacked seems fairly unbelievable. In many ways, Absalom’s Daughters reminded me of the Disney civil rights football drama Remember the Titans (2000) — an easy to digest take on race relations in the American South.
Race and the idea of “race mixing” form a steady undercurrent through this novel. Cassie, easily influenced by the words of others, is lead to believe at an early age that “there was a special way that black folks could turn white, but it required a long trip east of town, and once you went there, you could never come back.” This is only complicated when she realizes that her father is white, though her mother and grandmother are black, and that her grandmother actually has some sort of plan to “breed” her family’s blackness out by having the children marry or sleep with whites. All of this leads to an unexpected scene towards the end of the novel, where Cassie discovers a chemical that changes the appearance of her hair and skin, which she refers to as “tar”, making her feel white, and allowing her to “pass” at least temporarily as white.
Feldman includes the occasional nod to Faulkner, and these Easter eggs make Absalom’s Daughters a joy to read for Faulkner-philes. When Cassie and Judith meet Ovid Beale — whose theory that mules used to be black people sounds like something straight out of the recent film The Lobster — during their journey, and he mentions that he’s carrying a coffin containing a recently deceased mother and wife, it’s hard not to see this as a reference to Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying (1930). Similarly, when the sisters meet a wizened old woman who claims to be their grandmother several times removed, she tells them of her late husband “William”, whom the reader realizes with a jolt, is actually Thomas Sutpen!
“Your great-great-great grandfather … My faithless William who came from poverty in the foothills of Virginia and built the mansion here in Remington starting from nothing but a swamp and a crew of wild slaves. His vision was to start his own dynasty. He is the thread that connects us”.
Absalom’s Daughters is a fresh take on the Southern novel. It’s not attempt to replicate Faulkner as much as expand his reach, and actually do justice to the stories of African American women that Faulkner overlooked. The book is populated with many Southern tropes, and Feldman does justice to the place and its people, particularly in the ’40s, and ’50s settings. It’s also an essentially American novel, and describes a time which we often look back on with wonderment, often forgetting the harsh realities of life.