The subject of race relations in America has been the source of a long parade of books, films, plays, songs, poems and discussions around dinner tables. Like the Holocaust, Vietnam, the World Wars and the slaughter of American Indians, slavery refuses to leave the screen of the modern consciousness. It haunts us, black and white alike, reminding us not so much of the horrors individuals are capable of inflicting upon one another as of the horrors we are capable of inflicting collectively, in the name of a cherished belief.
The trouble is, in turning our attention away from individuals and toward the larger picture, we can sometimes boil history--and racism--down to a mush of generalizations, and deprive it of its subtleties and ironies. What we ask of art, I think, is that it preserve those lost details; that it make a political or historical "issue" personal and true to life in both its grosser and finer dimensions.
In Marsha Hunt's third book, "Free" (a former actress, model and singer, she is the author of "Joy," a novel, and "Real Life," an autobiography), she approaches the question of black-white relations with a fresh eye, and does a credible job of taking the legacy of slavery out of the realm of abstract history and making it personal. She chooses a time (1913) and a place (Pennsylvania) that give her plenty of latitude for exploring the nuances of her story.
In "Free," there are former slaves who cannot forget slavery, others who want only to forget it. There are whites waiting for the resurrection of the Confederacy, and others who befriend blacks as equals. Some of the novel's best moments bring characters together in a confusing swamp of changing roles: A white guest asks to see a black cook to procure her advice on love, and the cook believes she is being summoned for a scolding. When the white man treats her like a human being, the cook decides he is crazy.
The novel's central character is Theodore (Teenotchy) Simms, a 19-year-old black man who was present at the rape and murder of his mother. Teenotchy's past haunts him, just as slavery haunts every black-white and most of the black-black interactions in the book. Hunt moves easily back and forth between Teenotchy's past and present, and, in doing so, gradually exposes his pain in all its buried power.
Teenotchy gardens and cleans house for the Klebers, a family of wealthy white Quakers. Mr. Kleber befriends him and gives him a small plot of land, but this generosity is stained with guilt: Kleber had been Teenotchy's mother's illicit lover. Teenotchy lives in a converted stable with Aunt Em, former slave and washerwoman, and his sister Atlanta. Their lives consist of arguing, hard work and a very few sweet moments that are always tainted by the specter of losing what little they own.
Into this situation comes a young Englishman of liberal views and poor health, Alexander Blake. Alexander makes life miserable for his uncle, Jonas Tewksbury, and upsets the whole community simply by treating its black and white inhabitants as equals. He develops an instantaneous sexual infatuation for Teenotchy, organizes a horse race at Jonas' private track and arranges for Teenotchy to enter.
Of course, Alexander's love for Teenotchy--even his friendship--cannot survive the fire of prejudice that rages all around them, but it is a brilliant choice of vehicles for exposing that prejudice, and for furthering the exploration of these two main characters, one white, one black. Teenotchy and Alexander are original and well-developed, and Hunt has no trouble presenting their inner lives. She has, unfortunately, less luck with some of the minor characters, especially the American whites. Jonas Tewksbury and his friends never break out of their stereotypical boxes, and seem wooden and false beside Teenotchy and his Aunt Em and stable hand Edison Edwards.
There are problems, too, with the writing itself. Sentences like "A sunbeam fondled its way into the L-shaped room overlooking the south lawn which Mister Tewksberry bestowed upon his wife because it was the best appointed in the grand house" occur too frequently and detract from the story's natural power. And, especially in the last third of the novel, Hunt slips into soap-opera sappiness in places, and strains our credulity to the breaking point in others. Jockeys--even ones we are rooting for--do not wait at the starting line for a full minute to let the dust settle and then miraculously make up the distance they've sacrificed.
Still, there is a good deal of heart in this novel. "Free" is a sincere and original addition to the literature of race relations, even though, to my eye at least, it joins the parade dragging a heavy load of authorial clumsiness.