The Covenant: a novel about South Africa

A cave painting of a rhinoceros is on the cover of James A. Michener's novel The Covenant.
Rhino is from an ancient African cave painting.

In The Covenant, James A. Michener focuses as he has done in so many other best sellers* on one specific place and the character of the peoples who made that place their home over millennia.

As usual, Michener invents a cast of characters who occasionally rub elbows with actual historical figures, beginning with the brown and black populations in South Africa some 15,000 years ago.

Whites come to South Africa occasionally, but don’t stay until the mid 17th century when the Dutch establish a trading post on the Cape of Good Hope.

The first European settlers are Dutch farmers, Boers, who expand eastward toward land controlled by black tribes even as the Dutch cede their African colony to the English in 1795.

From 1800 onward, South Africa is in conflict. Whites against black, black against black, whites against colored, but increasingly Dutch against English.

The English military win the Boer War of 1899-1902, but the Boers triumph politically. They become Afrikaners.

Fiercely independent, rich and powerful, by 1979 Afrikaners dominate blacks, Coloureds, and Asians through the apartheid system.

Events since 1980 have changed the face of Africa, leaving contemporary readers with less connection to events in The Covenant than the novel would have had then, but they can’t obliterate Michener’s masterful storytelling.

The Covenant by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1980. 877 p.
1980 bestseller #1. My grade: A

*Hawaii, Centennial, and Chesapeake are three of Michener’s pre-1980 place-focused bestsellers.

 ©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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Ragtime: America without nostalgia

Told by an omniscient narrator, Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller, focuses on a New Rochelle, NY, family who he identifies by their roles, and a handful of characters outside their social group whose paths cross and mingle with theirs.

Ragtime shows a less than star-spangled America.

Father goes off to the Pole with Perry. He returns, physically weakened by the experience.

Mother, who previously had done nothing but run the house, has been running his flags-and-fireworks company competently in his absence.

If that weren’t change enough for one family, Mother finds an abandoned newborn baby in the yard, finds the black woman who abandoned it, and takes both mother and baby into the family’s home.

The baby’s father, black musician Coalhouse Walker, comes to win Sarah back.

Coalhouse introduces the family to ragtime music, which with its syncopation and black associations evokes the unsettled feeling of pre-WWI America.

Coalhouse also introduces the family to New York as blacks experience it.

Doctorow mingles his fictional story with stories of real people, from J. P. Morgan to Henry Houdini.

Doctorow’s omniscient narrator, rather than distancing the characters, seems to lay them right before readers, rather like paintings from which they may see what they will.

Ragtime is short, easy reading, and easily worth re-reading.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Random House [1975] 1st ed. 270 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rabbit Redux is a literary Pompeii

Rabbit Redux is the second volume of what would become John Updike’s four-book series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Although Redux is peppered with allusions to Rabbit, Run, readers who haven’t read that will feel slightly out of place.

Red, gray and blue striped cover suggests things out of whack in Rabbit Redux
The moon landing happens during Rabbit Redux.

The novel is set in 1969 in Brewer, a small Pennsylvania city whose neon outskirts conceal a decaying core left by the middle class folks like the Angstroms fleeing to the suburbs.

Harry takes the bus (“It stinks of Negroes.”) to work downtown. Janice drives the car to her job so she can meet her lover conveniently.

Janice moves in with her boyfriend.

Invited to a seedy bar by a black man with whom he works, Harry agrees to give a bed to a runaway, who says she’s 18 and drug free.

He brings Jill home; soon she and Harry’s son, 13-year-old son Nelson, are pals and Jill’s sharing Harry’s bed.

Then Jill brings home a black drug pusher wanted by police and things get complicated.

Reading Updike is like visiting Pompeii today: You see ordinary people going about ordinary lives captured as their world blew up and caught them unaware.

Rabbit Redux would be worth reading just for it’s glimpse into American culture circa 1969.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Knopf, ©1971 [my copy, 1981] p. 407
1971 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Outrageous man makes The Store worth revisiting

This is another of my occasional reviews of notable vintage novels that did not make the bestseller lists when they were published.  The Store won novelist T. S. Stribling a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1933. A two-page illustrated biography of the author in pdf format is available from the Tennessee Literary Project.

Cotton Plant
Natural Cotton

Before the Civil War, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was comfortably well off. Then he lost a year’s income when J. Handback declared bankruptcy the day Vaiden assigned him his cotton crop.

Vaiden’s fortunes haven’t recovered yet in 1884 when he learns Handback keeps a mistress, a former Vaiden slave named Gracie. Vaiden uses that knowledge to blackmail Handback into giving him a job in his store.

When Handback puts Vaiden in charge of the cotton bales, Vaiden sells them and pockets the proceeds, which he insists Handback owes him.

Though forced to return part of the money, Vaiden has enough to start his own store, invest in property, and think of himself as a Southern planter again.

Vaiden doesn’t realize the South’s future lies with shopkeepers not planters.  And he certainly doesn’t see that children of former slaves like Gracie’s son, Touissant, are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although T. S. Stribling hangs his hangs together on a string of coincidences, they are plausible coincidences. Even Vaiden’s descent into crime is more happenstance than choice.

But interesting as the historical portrait is, it can’t compete with the fascination of Vaiden himself. He is, as his one-time fiancée says, “an outrageous man” who “stick[s] at nothing and regret[s] little.”

Miltiades Vaiden doesn’t just invent his own facts; he believes every word he fabricates.

Look for The Store.

You won’t begrudge the time you spend there.

The Store
by T[homas] S[igismund] Stribling
Original publication 1932 by Doubleday, Doran
Republished 1985 by The University of Alabama Press
with an introduction by Randy K. Cross
571 pages

Photo credit: Natural Cotton 22 by robertz65

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nuanced picture of race relations keeps Strange Fruit contemporary

Interracial couple closeup in monochrome.
Strange Fruit is a simple love story in a setting where nothing is simple.

The girl is Nonnie Anderson, tall, lovely, college-educated. Her family can’t understand why she stays in her dead-end town working as caregiver for a retarded child.

The reason is Tracy Deen, an aimless college drop-out seething with resentment because his mother liked his sister best.

When Nonnie tells Tracy she’s pregnant, his response is predictable: He doesn’t want to think about it.

None of this would be more than mildly interesting except that Nonnie is black, Tracy is white, and they live in 1940s’ Georgia. The sun beats mercilessly, humidity rises, people get edgy, and sounds of a tent evangelist call white sinners to immunity within the church.

Lillian Smith, who lived most of her life in Georgia, knows all the nuances of race relations in the South. She shows us that race is only one factor in race relations. Poverty, education, anti-Yankee sentiment, and religion all play a role.

But the most important factor is human choice.

Our society still hasn’t come to grips with the issues Smith raises in Strange Fruit— all the more reason to read this marvelous 1944 novel today.

Strange Fruit
By Lillian Smith
Harcourt, Brace, 1944
250 pages
1944 Bestseller #1
My grade = A

Photo credit: Black ‘n White Uploaded by alfredo-9

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The View from Pompey’s Head shows South and self

Cover of The View from Pompey's Head

The View from Pompey’s Head by Hamilton Basso is a novel about  New York City lawyer Anson Page whose work takes him back to his southern home.

Anson’s task is to determine whether a recently deceased editor for a publishing house embezzled a client’s royalties.

Anson’s law firm and their client assume his local connections will make it easy for him to find out why Mrs. Garvin Wales is sure Phillip Greene stole her husband’s royalties.

Anson assumes his local connections will make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to find out the truth.

Basso explores not only the murky process of growing up, but the Southern mindset, which Anson calls “Southern Shintoism.”

Basso takes his time telling the story, letting Anson delve into his memories of how things appeared to him more than 15 years before.

Anson’s memories are still vivid, some painfully so, but his understanding of their meaning has changed as he matured. Anson finally finds the solution to the mystery of the re-directed royalties through his adult understanding of Southern culture.

Though the novel moves with Southern summer speed, Basso keeps it moving without any extraneous elements. Without exerting himself to entertain, he keeps readers engaged, leading them effortlessly to understand the value of the South’s myths.

The View from Pompey’s Head
By Hamilton Basso
© 1954 by Hamilton Basso
Introduction by John W. Aldridge © 1985
Arbor House, 1985  [paper]
409 pages
1954 bestseller #8
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mamba’s Daughters’ Story Trumps Technical Flaws

In Mamba’s Daughters, Du Bose Heyward takes readers inside America’s black community in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Mamba, a lower class black woman, attaches herself to an impoverished but genteel South Carolina white family, the Wentworths. Through them, she inveigles a job for herself and protection for her daughter and granddaughter.

Mamba terrorizes her brawny, dull-witted, liquor-loving daughter, Hester, into putting granddaughter Lissa’s interests above her own. Through the Wentworth’s son, Mamba gets Hester a job mining phosphate. Both women’s incomes go mainly to a fund for Lissa’s education.

Lissa is raised a “light black” snob but part of her longs for the fun-loving “full black” life. Mamba’s quick thinking and Hester’s muscles rescue Lissa from being raped. They send Lissa off to pursue a singing career in New York City.

As literature, Heyward’s work has plenty of technical flaws. Foremost among them is Heyward’s failure to maintain a consistent point of view. A 360-degree perspective on  black gentrification is more useful for the student of history than for the reader of literature.

Not only does the viewpoint shift, but Hester’s final assertion of her mother’s role shows more mental acumen than she had proven capable of to that point.

However, Heyward puts his tale of the rise of black professionals in a story that rises far above technical failures.

Mamba’s Daughters will knock your socks off.

Mamba’s Daughters
By Du Bose Heyward
Doubleday, Doran,  1929
311 pages
1929 bestseller # 7
My Grade: B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni