‘The Hush’ by John Hart

As I read this powerful novel for the third time, I wonder why I didn’t review it in February of 2019 when it was published as a sequel to Hart’s The Lost Child. The book is dark, features a forbidding land of swamps and woods where outsiders get lost or killed, is fawned over by hunters and a family who has gone to court to extract it from owner Johnny Merrimon, and is as close to Johnny as his psyche.

“The Hush” refers to a hush arbor, one of many places where slaves worshipped in private to avoid trouble with their owners. The lives of slaves and the Merrimons are tangled together on this property in ways that even the current generation don’t know–though stronger and stronger dreams are hinting at the sins of the past.

I’ve read many of Hart’s books. All of them are strong–visceral, almost–and well written. This one–for me–is the strongest novel because of the linkage between the land, the people, and the folklore.

“The Hush,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Bill Sheehan, “is a harsh, inimical landscape in which disorientation rules and trees, paths and familiar landmarks seem to shift and disappear. It is a self-contained world in which unwelcome visitors are sometimes driven to madness and sometimes destroyed, and Hart evokes that surreal landscape with a power and economy worthy of the great British horror novelist Ramsey Campbell. ‘In that first hour, the forest was still,’ Hart writes, ‘but as light strengthened, a dawn chorus rose around them, a symphony of catbird and Carolina wren, of mourning dove and cardinal and the deep-throated gunk of green frogs in the pocosins that fingered up from the distant swamp.’”

In this novel, the reader doesn’t escape from the land which, perhaps, is the real protagonist, though most of the townspeople see Johnny as more an inexplicable anomaly than the land he owns–to the extent anyone can own such land as this.  His best friend Jack, who suffered through the past with him in The Lost Child, risks everything to help him. That might prove impossible.

Multiple readings of novels tend to bring out secrets we didn’t notice the first time through. When it comes to The Hush, those of us who seek out the mysteries of land and people may be too close to see the real from the unreal.

Highly recommended for readers of dark fantasy.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Fate’s Arrows,” magical realism set in the Florida Panhandle during the days when the KKK ruled the world.

Review: ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a shame that this book had to wait so many years to find a publisher. But we finally have Cudjo Lewis story. In her beautiful foreword, Alice Walker writes that “I’m not sure there was ever a harder story to read than this…” I agree. The story is unique in many ways: Cudjo, whose real name was Kossola, tells a story that includes his life in Africa and his life during the “Middle Passage” voyage to the United States after the slave trade was banned.  Most histories don’t include life in Africa or on the slave ship.

His story is dear because he wanted to tell it and because Hurston was a skilled anthropologist and knew how to collect stories. The story is dear because you can feel its truth in your bones; Hurston did not intrude herself or her perspectives into the narrative. And then, too, Curjo speaks in his own English dialect and that adds great depth and reality to the tale. We hear that Hurston couldn’t publish the book when she wrote it because the publishers wanted her to get rid of the dialect. I didn’t find it to be a problem even though a fair number of Amazon reader reviews say the dialect was hard to read. No, it wasn’t.

Cudjo has some traditional tales of his own to tell. These appear an appendix so that they won’t disrupt his story about being captured by blacks, placed in a barracoon (slave house), sold to whites, and then having to endure many days at sea before ending up at a plantation where he was expected to work. The experience seems incomprehensible to him. So, too, is the fact that once he’s set free, he has no money and no land, so where is he supposed to go?

Deborah G. Plant has done a fine job editing the material and writing an afterword and a glossary that place Cudjo’s story in perspective. Readers have a choice because the editor’s comments were placed in this separate section rather than being distributed throughout the narrative as lengthy and jarring footnotes. As such, you can read the story and then look at the added material–or simply read the story as a lover of Hurston’s works and/or oral history.

Cudjo’s story is filled with great loss, great wisdom, and–strange as it may seem–more humor than anger for a man torn away from the country of his birth and forced to live and work and endure a hard existence in a country where he was never whole again.

Malcolm

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Thoughts on ‘The Invention of Wings’

“Alternating between Sarah’s and Handful’s contrasting perspectives…allows Kidd to generate unstoppable narrative momentum as she explores the troubled terrain that lies between white and black women in a slaveholding society… The novel’s language can be as exhilarating as its powerful story… By humanizing these formidable women, The Invention of Wings furthers our essential understanding of what has happened among us as Americans – and why it still matters.”
—The Washington Post

Sue Monk Kidd’s powerful historical novel The Invention of Wings returns to the public’s consciousness the effective, famous and infamous abolitionist and feminist orators/authors, sisters Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) and Angelina Emily Grimké Weld (1805 – 1879). (See PBS’ People & Ideas: Angelina and Sarah Grimké.)

inventionwingsBorn into a Charleston slaving-holding family that was widely known in the city’s upper levels of society, both girls would–in spite of a stern mother and a resolute father–evolve into outspoken ladies who would ultimately defy their kin, city, and church to speak out against slavery and discrimination against women.

As the PBS article notes, “The sisters’ public speaking and involvement in the political sphere drew condemnation from religious leaders and traditionalists who did not believe that it was a woman’s place to speak in public. The sisters soon found themselves fighting for equality of the sexes and women’s rights, following women like Sojourner Truth in linking the rights of blacks and women.”

The Invention of Wings shows the sisters’ (and Sarah’s Black maid Handful’s) struggles at a close, personal level as the women’s views about themselves and their places in the world evolve during the novel’s 1803 to 1838 time frame. This is the novel’s first great strength.

From Sarah’s perspective: “All things pass in the end, even the worst melancholy. I opened my dresser and pulled out the lava box that held my button. My eyes glazed at the sight of it, and this time I felt my spirit rise up to meet my will. I would not give up. I would err on the side of audacity. That was what I’d always done.”

From Handful’s perspective: “Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder.”

Its second great strength comes through the seamless blend of historical facts and characters and fictional characters and events. You realize how expertly this hand-in-glove fit was accomplished when you read the author’s note at the end of the book. (Kidd also provides a list of references.)

dissidentdaughterI became a fan of Sue Monk Kidd in 1996 when I read her The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. I thought of that book again as I read The Invention of Wings. I does not surprise me that an author who wrote about her own escape from religious patriarchy would be drawn to two historical sisters who also took strong issue with the organized church, sexism and racism.

The Invention of Wings is a testament to a wonderful writer’s ability to put herself into the shoes of two unfortunately obscure civil rights and feminist leaders and bring them to back life again in a highly readable story.

–Malcolm

KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a novel about small-town racism in the Florida Panhandle during the Jim Crow era.