Saturday, March 7, 2009

Queen

Books have always drawn me in; sucked me right into the stories printed on the page. I remember, in first grade, getting so engrossed in my brand-newly issued health book (yes, my health book) that I was suddenly jolted from my reverie to find that the rest of the class was seated Indian-style at the feet of the teacher for story time, she was calling to me, and I was still at my desk, oblivious to her instructions, my head buried in my health book.

My mom gave me The Yearling to read when I was little. I stayed up late to finish it one night; she knew I was near the end of the book, and welcomed me into her arms to snuggle next to her when I ran down the hall sobbing at the tragic end.

I judge a good book by how passionately it makes me feel. If it evokes anger or laughter or tears or happiness from me, it’s a dream. If I am ambivalent at a scene or character that is supposed to be moving, I'm disappointed… because good writing should evoke powerful feelings.

But Queen, by Alex Haley, the (mostly)-true account of his great grandmother’s life: pre- and post-slavery, made me bawl. Here’s the background…

Jass Jackson was the heir to his father’s massive cotton plantation in Alabama. He grew up, hand-in-hand, with his favorite friend and companion, a slave girl who was as much white as she was Cherokee and black. Her name was Easter, and she and Jass were inseparable. As they grew, their friendship became love and it seemed natural to everyone, black and white, that they would become lovers. No one seemed to mind, black or white, and everyone pretty much pretended they didn’t know the secret. Jass and Easter lost their virginity to each other before Jass went North to college. He couldn’t write to her, because she couldn’t read, but he knew that in four years, when he returned to Alabama, she’d be waiting for him. And Easter knew, though Jass was a handsome and eligible bachelor, that he would be waiting for her as well, because no one knew him as she did, and know one could love him as well as she could, either.

Jass knew that slavery couldn’t last forever and wanted to explore new ways of income for the plantation, such as farming a crop that wasn’t so dependent on slave labor as cotton was. He thought he could begin to pay his slaves for their work. He thought of hightailing it completely, heading to the frontier with Easter, so he wouldn’t have to hide their not-so-secret relationship, and live with the girl he loved. But the pressures of carrying on what his father had built and the pressures he felt to carry on with the status quo were too overpowering. He set aside his vision for the future and the dreams of his own happiness with Easter for his responsibility to his family, his heritage, and the South.

The whole time I was reading this book, I was practically yelling in my head: “JASS! Tell her you love her! Take her away! Run off and be happy with the woman you love and your daughter! Go west! Defend her!”

And here is the best (and most heart-breaking) passage:

He didn’t look at her, and he didn’t go to her, because there was no point. She was not there.

He sat in his old rocking chair, and stared at nothing. Waiting. If he did what he had always done, then she would come back from the well, and sit at her loom, and they’d be together again, nothing could keep them apart, and everything would be as it always had been.

He sat for hours, seeing her dance in his mind, a living and beautiful thing, who had taken possession of his heart at some time before he could remember, and had nursed and cherished him through all his life.

He didn’t move or speak. Night came and still he sat there. Then, without understanding how it happened, he knew she wasn’t going to come back from the well, ever again. He knew he would never see her, living, again, and prayed that her soul was in some
sweet and gentle resting place.

For a great and simple truth had overwhelmed him. He had known it for so long, all his thinking life; perhaps he had put it out of his mind because it made the world too complicated. The implications of it were so frightening, he could not, at this moment, bear to consider them.

Black people did have souls.

He turned and looked at the body.

“Oh, my love,” he said.

And he wept.