Jubilee (50th Anniversary Edition), by Margaret Walker
Originally published in 1966, this saga was re-released last year on its 50th anniversary with a new introduction by poet Nikki Giovanni.
The book is the story of Vyry, a slave on the Dutton plantation in Georgia, and rarely leaves her to follow other characters. Vyry is the daughter of the slave owner John Dutton and the fifteenth child of Sis Hetta who dies in the first chapter.
Vyry is light-skinned and can pass as white. She grows up in slave quarters but works in the house, learning from her adopted mother Aunt Sally, who cooks for the family. Even at a young age Vyry is subject to brutality, such as being hung by her thumbs in a closet by the master’s new wife for breaking a piece of china.
Starting around 1835 the book follows Vyry’s life through Dred Scott, Lincoln’s election and the forming of the Confederacy, and the Civil War which ultimately takes the lives of all but one of the Dutton family, a daughter who is finally taken off the plantation, an act that leaves Vyry feeling that she can finally abandon the plantation and try to live for herself.
During these violent years Vyry falls in love with a free black man named Randall Ware, He fathers two of her children and promises that he’ll get enough money to buy her freedom or free her through marriage. Marse Sutton refuses to do either. In her one attempt to escape with Randall she’s caught before she has a chance to find him and is taken back to the plantation and whipped.
Randall falls sick near the end of the war. Vyry waits for him but is told he was so sick that he probably died. She meets another former slave after the war, Innis Brown, who saves her from an attacker. They marry and head west, finding continuing racism and danger in Reconstruction South until they finally find a town that can use her midwifing skills and the whites protect her and her family allowing them to farm.
The prose is excellent. Walker published poetry before taking on this book. It’s also historically precise and goes into dramatic depth on the tortures, murders, and general indignities faced by slaves. At the same time she is able to illuminate the thinking of the whites without trying to justify their thinking. She records conversations between the master and the rest of the family on their reasons for breaking away from the north, their expectations, and fundamental beliefs about slavery.
It’s more emotionally complex than Alex Haley’s later Roots (she sued unsuccessfully for copyright infringement) while still managing a historical narrative. It ends up being a book about courage and determination as Vyry seeks and ultimately takes control of her freedom, willing to keep traveling until she and her family can find a place of their own.