(There will be multiple spoilers in this discussion, so if you don't want to know them, don't read any further.)
First, a quick summary. The story is set in Tennessee in 1913, when white farmers "hired" black sharecroppers to raise and harvest the tobacco crop. The story is told from the viewpoints of four characters -- Annalaura Welles and her husband, John (the sharecroppers), and Alex McNaughton (the farmer) and his wife, Eula May. When the story begins, John Welles has, by all appearances, abandoned Annalaura and their four children (he's actually gone to Nashville to try to earn enough money to buy their own land so they can get out of the sharecropping system). Annalaura is having a difficult time feeding the family, and she doesn't know how she and the children (all under the age of 12) are going to get in the tobacco crop. One day when Alex McNaughton is making his rounds to check on the sharecroppers, he sees Annalaura with her skirt hiked up as she works in the field, and he is overcome with lust for her. Eventually, she agrees to become his mistress in exchange for food (and, as it turns out, other items like shoes and toys) for her children. Annalaura quickly becomes pregnant, and near the end of her pregnancy, her husband John suddenly returns, setting off a crisis. John is determined to kill Alex, Alex is determined to either run John out of town or kill him, Annalaura delivers the baby prematurely, and it is too white to pass as the child of a black man. Alex, who is delighted to have a baby, gets Annalaura to promise to move in to his house as a hired girl, but when John comes to take her and his family away from Tennessee, she goes with him instead on a train headed to Chicago. In the last chapter of the book, John gives her a choice -- she can go to Chicago, where chances are pretty good that Alex can find her, or the family can get off the train in a town before they get to Chicago and start over. He will forgive her infidelity and raise Alex's baby as his own. He goes back to his seat to allow her to make her decision. And here's how the book ends:
Her hand began a slow slide down the page. A raised place in the paper stopped her. She eased her eyes open and stared down at the letters on the smoothed-out sheet [which is the train schedule]. Her answer had lain there all along. The pain in her heart eased. Choose, said John. Choose me, Alex had said. But she had a choice neither man had given her. Annalaura stroked Lottie's arm and settled into sleep, her mind at peace. All of her tomorrows belonged in only one set of hands -- her own.SO WHAT DID SHE DECIDE? Is she going to Chicago? Is she getting off the train early? Is she going to accept John back in her life or is she going to hope Alex comes for her? Or...is she going to dump both men and start over on her own? I can't tell. I don't think I'm too dense to get it. Or am I? Do you get it? If you do, please fill me in.
The thing is, this was a book that required quite an investment from me. I'm not going to go into everything that drove me nuts about it, but I will say there were several things that bothered me. For one thing, sometimes the story just didn't pass the "really?" test. Characters do things that are inconsistent. For example, Alex finds out John is back. He goes to try to talk his brother-in-law and some other men into running John Welles out of town, but the brother-in-law tells him the white men aren't going to do anything to rile up the sharecroppers at the beginning of tobacco season. Basically, he tells Alex the affair is over and he needs to go home to his wife. So Alex does, and he makes passionate love to her, and I thought he was going to let his obsession go. The next chapter, he's at the cabin Annalaura has gone to for refuge, and he helps her deliver their baby. It's the same night. To me, that didn't pass the test of reality. For one thing, how would he have found her in the middle of the night? It seemed like the author just want to have this "romantic" scene in which Alex gets to be the only one present at the birth of the baby.
Another example of the inconsistency is Annalaura's response to Alex. At the beginning of the book, she can't stand for him to touch her. When she finds out she's pregnant, she is distraught because she knows what it means in a racist society. But by the end of the book, the author wants us to believe Annalaura loves Alex. He's been gentle to her, etc., etc. I don't buy it, I'm sorry. I think if a powerful man took advantage of a woman the way Alex took advantage of Annalaura, she's not going to quickly come to love him. What he did to her was despicable--even if he did bring her a fancy coat.
Maybe you've already guessed the biggest problem I had with this novel. I didn't like any of the characters. I didn't sympathize with any of them. I didn't feel like I really connected with any of them. Part of that is because of the writing. I don't want to go into a lot of detail because this blog post is already long enough, but despite all the emotional trauma that these characters went through, the description of that trauma didn't draw me in and make me feel anything for the characters. Maybe that's a function of telling the story from the viewpoint of four different characters.
There was also just some clumsy writing, the kind of stuff that drives me nuts. For example, at the beginning of the book, there was an inordinate amount of description of the position of Annalaura's eye contact while she was in Alex's presence. I get the idea -- the author wanted to show that blacks had to be careful to "stay in their place." But I don't have to be hit over the head with an iron skillet to get it! Another example comes in the first scene when Annalaura's aunt is introduced; the text kept jumping back and forth between calling her "Becky" and "Rebecca." Please! Choose one and stick with it. Switching between the two names takes me out of the story for just the split second to say, "Oh, yeah, right--that's the aunt." Any time the narrative is broken, that's a bad thing, in my opinion.
Ok, so the book brought to light an ugly part of the South's history (the exploitation of black women by white men), and that's a story that should be told. But I wish the telling had been different.