Those We Thought We Knew by David Joy

Translucent snake coils up the front cover over a green background

On September 8, I attended the final event in David Joy’s book tour for his novel Those We Thought We Knew. As he opened that discussion, he invited all of us to sit in our discomfort as we engaged in civil discourse about a difficult subject—race and its legacy in our country. While not the subject of his novel, it is the context and a large part of the conflict within it. Because the novel takes place within thirty minutes of where I live, this book and the conversation that evening really hit home.

The story is about a woman in college at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, NC. Her grandmother lives in Sylva where her mother was raised. However, she grew up mostly in Atlanta and came to school at WCU to confront the racism she had felt her whole life, just simmering below the surface. The personification of that is a confederate statue in a place of prominence in downtown Sylva. This statue is not made up for the story. It actually still exists. She decides to bring attention to it in a way that kicks up a hornet’s nest and sets the story going.

While the novel is primarily a mystery, it deals with the differing experience of white and black in the mountains of western North Carolina. This is seen at its most challenging in the relationship between the sheriff (white) and the young woman’s grandmother (black). They grew up together, and the sheriff and her late husband went fishing and hunting together regularly as adults. At one point, they have an uncomfortable discussion. The sheriff is confused about why everything is getting stirred up. It was never like that before. Maybe other places, but not there. The grandmother eventually feels the need to point out to him that it was always there, but because he is white he has never had to deal with it.

The mystery is gripping and the storytelling is marvelous. The author really understands how to bring out the beauty in his descriptions of the mountains. But this is not a comfortable story. It’s not meant to be. At the book talk, the author made the point that the work that needs doing on race is work for white folks. And we need to stop asking for black folks to do that work. White supremacy and racism are problems created by white people that can only be addressed by white people. The author’s hope is that this book can help bring people together to have uncomfortable conversations in safe places like around kitchen tables similar to that where the sheriff and the grandmother talked, knowing that they are safe in their love for each other.

I highly encourage you to read this book and watch the video of the book talk.

My rating: 5/5

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Background of line drawn images in red and blue against a black backdrop. The images are of plants and letters. Over all this is the title and author.

For Pride Month, my book club decided to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. That’s a lot to recommend it. I have to say I was not disappointed. In fact, I read the entire book in one day this past Sunday, all 288 pages.

The book is an epistolary novel told through letters written by Celie. On page one is the shocking revelation that she was sexually abused by her father at the age of fourteen, having two children by him. She is married off to a man who really wants to marry her sister Nettie. From there it goes on to tell about her relationships with her husband, his children, and a woman that Celie falls in love with. Most of the letters are addressed to God. But as her relationship to and understanding of God changes, so does who she addresses her letters to.

This novel touched me deeply. Not only is it about family and overcoming trauma, it is about growing into real adulthood and a deeper understanding of one’s spirituality. To my sense, this sense of spirituality as based in nature and her laws really rings true. In its approach to the divine, it reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

There is a whole section that describes the experience of missionaries in Africa. They try to help the natives they live amongst even as powers beyond their control slowly encroach on their village, forever changing their way of life. This reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that I read in college back in the late 80s. Just like then, the truth of that experience was a gut punch.

Overall, the word that comes to mind to describe this book is “authentic”. It feels true to the human experience in its challenges, ugliness, joys, and triumphs. Despite the sometimes bleak situations, the book left be feeling warm and hopeful about how we as humans can grow and improve.

My rating: 5/5

Struggling with History

Kindred book cover

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. I devoured this book. It is a historical novel about a woman living in 1979 who keeps being yanked back to an antebellum Maryland plantation worked by enslaved people. Why? It’s not clear, but a member of the plantation family turns out to be one of the woman’s ancestors. The story explores how a twentieth-century black woman would fare on a slave plantation.

That on its own is an interesting premise for a story, but with Butler’s storytelling and imagination it is so much more. It explores slavery and humanizes both the enslaved and the enslavers while still exposing the absolute inhumanity of slavery itself. Her husband is white and is with her on one trip to the past. This allows Butler to explore not only the obvious injustice and brutality suffered by those enslaved, but also the effect on the enslavers of growing up in a culture and family that endorse such a violent and degrading economic system.

And now I have made the book seem depressing, and at times it is. But the best word to describe this work is human. It is the story of everyday people trying to live their lives as they struggle with the lived reality that was slavery. It honestly made me think in ways I had never considered. It exposed the ugliness and cruelty of slavery as well as how those involved did their best to simply live their lives. Most controversial issues get oversimplified. Not in this book. Butler stares directly at the problem, making the reader experience it and, hopefully, start to come to terms with what many call America’s original sin. It’s a book every American needs to and should read.