The Keepers of the House
My Heart Is Broken
Shirley Ann Grau is a Southern woman writer who has neither the limitations nor the gifts of the great ones of an earlier generation. Her time scale in this ambitious novel (a hundred and fifty years) and her theme (race relations) burst the limits of the narrowly observed domestic moment where women writers are conventionally at ease; what she lacks is their close emotional focus. The family history related by The Keepers of the House covers familiar ground, establishing the progenitor in a fertile rural district of the deep South early in the last century. The head of the family in the fourth generation, William Howland (born toward the end of the century), takes a Negro mistress after the death of his wife, so that the fifth and sixth generations comprise both black and white members—one more play on the old tragedy of the South. The difference in Miss Grau’s story—and the cunning plot depends on it—is that Howland has legitimized his Negro children by marrying their mother.
The narrative is ostensibly presented from three points of view (though the author adheres waveringly to this device) that of Howland, his Negro mistress, and his granddaughter by his first (white) wife. A minatory prologue is spoken by the granddaughter: she is alone at night, surrounded by enemies; one of them (in the end we learn he is her Negro half-uncle) she wishes dead. The rest of the book—a rambling old-fashioned narrative loaded with Negro folk wisdom, local nature lore, legends of past violence, child-births, deathbeds,—glides over blurred decades, building up an explanation of how the granddaughter got where the prologue finds her trapped in the fall-out of a destructive encounter between the black and white branches of the Howland family.
It is an encounter triggered by the political ambitions of the granddaughter’s husband, a plausibly decent office-seeker playing white supremacy for what it’s worth. Though privately willing like any Southern gent to put up with a grand-father-in-law’s black by-blows, he is undone by the discovery that his wife’s Negro half-uncle is just as legitimate a Howland as she. The campaign for the governorship of the state, the advantageous marriage, indeed the very history of the Howland family are devastated. A novel as conventional in tone and technique as this dangles anticipation of a hopeful resolution, but far from it: everyone is diminished by a situation unripe for reconciliation. The absence of wishful thinking about the real matter of this book is very good.
The author conducts a brisk narrative toward the end, and she is delicately responsive to the country she writes about and the texture of rural life from day to day. But the characters are seen, not felt, in spite of the “subjective” points of view. There they are—rowing boats, sewing, hunting, making love, giving birth—but the urgency of their encounters with one another remains as distant and illegible as glimpses through lighted windows at night. Where did all that violence come from that fires up in the end?…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.