Jubilee

22 Feb

By Margaret Walker

Why I Chose This Book
Jubilee was our book club selection for the month. Whitney had gone with a theme of “banned books” and it was my second choice (Farewell to Arms was my first choice, Jubilee my second, and Catcher in the Rye third), but I was not at all disappointed when it won the group’s vote. Honestly, I’d forgotten that I hadn’t voted for it. Frankly, I can’t really remember why I voted for the Hemingway in the first place. He’s, well, not my favorite.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
I finished the book a good ten days ago, but I’ve been dithering about reviewing it because I’d gotten onto this train of thought about American slavery, and the Holocaust, and if I’d personally be a fighter or a resigner (probably a resigner), and it was just too overwhelming to focus on. Then after we met for Book Club I had all of everyone else’s thoughts stuck in my head and had to wait a day or so for those to filter out. Then I wasted the whole weekend watching Season 1 of Fringe. But today I actually had my act together enough to clean pots and pans and prepping materials while I was cooking dinner, and thus had almost no dishes to do after dinner, and talked myself out of folding laundry, and then decided that yes, indeed, it was cold enough in the house to crawl under a laptop (it has a tendency to overheat the legs), and here I am!

Nutshell Review of the Book
This was an absolutely riveting fictionalized biography of the author’s great-grandmother, who had been born into slavery and lived through Reconstruction as an adult. It was a page-turner ’til the very end, and if the last few chapters lapsed into a lot of uplifting social message-delivering, one just remember that it is a product of the 1960s. The speechifying is perfectly consistent with the civil rights speeches of the day.

Detailed Review of the Book, With Minor Spoilers

This will be tricky. I really, really don’t want to accidentally write 3,000 words about the themes of this book, particularly off the topic of my head with a glass of wine* interfering with my memory of all those slave narratives I’ve read that are far too inconveniently placed in the garage to actually reference, and I don’t want to summarize. I also have almost nothing negative to say about the book at all, so I’ll try to hit a few pretentious thwarted literary scholar points and be on my way. I’ll even number the list for fun and convenience.

1. So what if there are a few sections that are just pages and pages of uplifting sermonizing about the future from a slave preacher in an oratory style, punctuated by multiple repetitions of spirituals? This book was written in the 1950s and published in the 1960s–I’m going to guess that these sentiments and lyrics were new to the mainstream audience the book was published for. Spirituals had probably not yet trickled down into the junior high school English class curriculum yet. I could make a similar point about the two or three chapters at the end that are almost entirely characters talking to each other about civil rights, but that was obviously a deliberate strategy by the author to connect the oppression of slavery and the blatant racism afterward to the current day.

HINT: Just skip those parts.

2. Here’s an interesting quote from page 308 (in the 1999 edition, pictured above): “I reckon all her things she left in Oglethorpe are gone, just like everything else, on the wind.”

I don’t really care if the phrase “gone on the wind” or “gone with the wind” is a common colloquialism that people have used in the south for centuries–this is not a coincidence. I am certain–with the certainty of a person who is making up a theory all by herself without once consulting any scholarly research about Margaret Walker or the writing of this book–that the author purposely used this phrase to evoke Gone with the Wind and force the reader to make comparisons. The film of GWTW had a theatrical re-release in 1961, and it would have been very fresh in readers’ minds (if the book’s popularity weren’t widespread enough that people would know the story). There are many of the same character types in both books (I like to think of Walker’s Lucy as a realistic version of Mitchell’s Prissy), including an encounter with General Sherman and a Southern Belle left to fend for herself and her family. Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone is a more scathing (and direct) critique of Mitchell’s novel, but if Walker is “taking on” GWTW (and I don’t think she is, really), it’s a secondary goal. This is a story first about her ancestor and second about slavery, and undermining the GWTW stuff is a bonus.

3. I wish there weren’t so many holes in my knowledge of 20th Century American literature, so that I could talk about Jubilee in the context of what else was being written, but I can’t. There are lots and lots of places to give a feminist reading of the book, too, but I won’t (too much recap required, not enough wine available). Vyry (the main character) definitely fits into the American tradition of protagonists who use their wiles and recognize opportunities and seize their chances and are self-reliant and natural leaders. So in that sense, she’s an American Hero doing all those American Things that appear in all those books from American Literature. But before she gets lost in the universality of it all, the author makes sure to remind readers frequently that Vyry was a real person who withstood real trials, and Walker peppers the book with excerpts of historical documents that relate to or even name the real-life counterparts of the characters. So even though Vyry is just one person, her story brings to life the story of so many other people who were slaves and who did not have granddaughters with the resources to research and document their lives.

You can see a picture of her here.

Fun Fact: Jubilee was published ten years ahead of Roots. I read Roots ages and ages ago (maybe while I was in high school), and–don’t get me wrong–it leaves an impression. But the scope of Roots is much broader, and readers meet in that book so many generations of Haley ancestors that you (and by you, I mean me) end up observing them rather than identifying with them. You may not learn as much about the politics and history of a region from Vyry as you do from Kunta Kinte or Chicken George, but I don’t think you identify as closely with Haley’s characters as you do with Walker’s. At least, as you do with Vyry–none of the other characters in the book seem quite so vividly drawn as she is. (And just now, after checking on a character name from Roots, I find out from Wikipedia that Walker accused Haley of plagiarism. I’m kinda surprised, and am mildly interested in learning more about that, but that case was dismissed from court.)

4. Does that Randall Ware know how and when to make an entrance or what? His presence in the book as a free black man working in Georgia, and his decisions about whether to stay or go after the Civil War could fill a book of their own.

5. And speaking of Roots, I did not know that LeVar Burton played Kunta Kinte in the miniseries until just now. He was just featured prominently in the February 17th episode of Community, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking.” I don’t recall any references to this role. It was all Reading Rainbow this and Star Trek that. He was frikkin hilarious, but I would have been happy with just a picture. You can’t be disappointed by a picture.

*Gewurtztraminer, and it’s my second glass. Plus I’m hungry and want a second dinner of ramen.**
**It is not a healthful practice to go make a second dinner of ramen at 11:00 PM.***
***I never did eat my pudding for dessert, though.****
****Chocolate, with a Girl Scout Samoa cookie on top.

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