Rebel Yell, Alice Randall, Bloomsbury USA, 2009, 368 pp
Alice Randall is an African American writer who has written two previous novels as well as many hit country songs. She lives in Nashville, where she teaches at Vanderbilt University. In other words, she has been living a full and interesting life.
I loved reading Rebel Yell. The writing is excellent, the characters are alive and leap off the page. Her theme is the many scars left on American people of color because of slavery, racism and their fight for freedom but her story is in no way a retelling of stories already told. It is as unique as human beings are unique. Stuff happens to people in their childhoods, those people do the best they can to understand the world around them, they make choices, they pursue goals and more stuff happens. If they are lucky, they figure out a few things before they die. That is life. The people in this story happen to be descendants of slavery.
Abel Jones Jr is the son of a civil rights lawyer who grew up in the days of black churches being bombed, children he knew being killed, Martin Luther King Jr being assassinated. He wants to join the white world. Hope was Abel's first wife, a mixed race woman with a white father and black mother, who was raised by her father in a world of privilege. She wants to fully join the black world. These two trajectories draw them together and of course it doesn't work.
After Abel dies, Hope reaches out to various people, trying to understand what happened to herself and to Abel. If she can grasp the complexities underlying their inability to stay together despite the deep love they had for each other, she can work out how to be a good mother to the son they created.
So it is a very contemporary story set in the South, New England and Washington DC. The war on terror, espionage and torture in modern prison camps lurk in the background like an ominous reprise to the life and times that produced these characters. The love story of Hope and Abel plays out its beginning in the wild times of the 1990s. There are characters, locations and social settings from deep inside Black culture that are unfamiliar to me, so I was aware that I wasn't totally getting all that Ms Randall was wanting to tell me. That made some passages rough going, though no different than reading books set in modern India, Pakistan, etc.
The tale shines through. I felt I was in the hands of a talent close to Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, making me want to read more from this author. She has captured a part of the process Americans are going through because we have slavery in our past, racism is still alive and virulent in our present and there is a long road ahead of us in rectifying those evils.
(Rebel Yell is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in September, 2010.)