Thursday, July 7, 2016

"What's important is the past": Absalom's Daughters by Suzanne Feldman

In the Jim Crow South of the 1950s two girls find their reflection in each other's faces. Although one is black and one white they share the same father-- 'skirt-chasing, adulteratin' white trash'--who has abandoned both families. A rumor comes to town that their father is to inherit a legacy, and being 'progeny' the girls are encouraged to find their father and demand their inheritance.

Sixteen-year-old Judith is white, uneducated, and devastatingly poor. What she possesses is a beautiful talent for singing. Hearing the Negro music aired from New York City--only at night due to its scandalous sexuality--Judith longs to go to New York and become a famous singer.

Cassie, fifteen and cinnamon in color, lives with her grandmother and mother, a hardworking laundress. Grandmother determined that her daughter--and plans for her granddaughter--to take white lovers with the expectation of diluting their African blood until they can pass as white. Cassie's mother hopes to spare her daughter this indignation, encouraging her to follow Judith's quest for the father and leave town.

The story of the girls' road trip across the south is delightful reading, episodic with wonderful characters and twists and memorable characters.

Early in the story Cassie meets Ovid Beale who tells her that mules 'useter be colored folk'; it is easier for colored folk to turn into a mule because they are 'already half one thing and half another.' And it is this theme of passing between two worlds, the legacy of slavery making colored folks black but not black, appearing white while being deemed legally black, that informs the story.

On their travels each sister acts out different roles according to the expectations of the audience and what they need to do to survive. Cassie acts the black servant to Judith, then tries passing as white, learning about herself and deciding on her future. Cassie learns that what is important is the past, to never forget her roots.

It took time for me to get hooked to the story, then it picked up considerably. The characters are interesting and Feldman has an original take on the timeless theme of race and identity in America.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Absalom's Daughters
by Suzanne Feldman
Henry Holt & Co,
Publication July 5, 2016
$26 hard cover
ISBN: 9781627794534