Black History Month: Review of “Page from a Tennessee Journal: A Novel” by Francine Thomas Howard

In this work of historical fiction, Annalaura and John Welles are sharecroppers for Alex McNaughton in 1913 Montgomery County, Tennessee. John has abandoned Annalaura and the four children to seek money in Nashville; for John, the idea of getting out from under the white man’s oppressive ownership of his labor outweighs all other concerns. Annalaura and the children live in a corner of a drafty, broken-down barn; she can barely feed the kids, and fears she cannot bring in the tobacco crop by herself. Alex, worried about his profits, rides out one hot summer day to check on the fields. Alex is 43, and married to a plain woman, Eula Mae, in a passionless marriage. When Alex sees twenty-nine year old Laura with her skirts hitched up in the heat, he feels desire. It is considered acceptable in this time and place for white men to take up with black women if their men aren’t around: “blackberry juice kept a man young. Every white man in Montgomery County knew that.”

The white women adjust; as Eula Mae’s sister-in-law tells her:

“If you complain that yo’ husband is cheatin’ on you with a nigger, then you’re telling everybody in all of Montgomery County that a colored woman is the same as you. That she’s as good as you. That she’s even better, because she’s got yo’ man. … White men ain’t supposed to love black women over us. My Lord, if we acted like that was true, there wouldn’t be no sense to this world.”

The black women must adjust as well; Annalaura’s Aunt Becky spits out:

“If a Tennessee white man comes ridin’ along and spots an apple orchard and decides he wants him an apple, ain’t nothin’ that apple can do to make him pick a different one. .. A colored woman in Tennessee is just like that apple. Ain’t never been a brown-skinned woman who had any say over what a Tennessee white man can do with her body.”

Both white and black women are advised by their friends and relatives to suck it up. If a man is your husband,

“It’s up to you to lay in his bed, lumpy as it may be, let him do what he’s got to do, and act as happy as if you’d gotten your gold, heaven crown right now.”

When Alex comes back to see Annalaura, and unbuckles his pants, her attempts to protest (albeit in a subservient manner so as not to get beaten) don’t make any difference. But something else unexpected does. Alex falls in love with Annalaura.

The drama and tension that ensue when Eula Mae and John Welles get wind of what’s going on take over the remainder of the book. You won’t want to put it down until you discover how it all gets resolved.

Discussion: The status of Black Americans in 1913 that set the stage for the behavior of the characters in this book was actually worse in many areas of the country (particularly in the Deep South) than was the case in this book’s setting.

Race relations in the South had reached a new low in the first decade of the new century. Black men in the South were arrested on any pretense and imprisoned in work camps. In Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name, the author reports that:

“The horror of the mortality rates and living conditions was underscored by the triviality of the alleged offenses for which hundreds of men were being held.”

The arrest and conviction of these men for such crimes as cursing and vagrancy and even “cause not given” became a lucrative source of compensation for the law enforcement community, which started operating a trading network for the sale and distribution of blacks to be used as slave laborers. (Blackmon notes that while the Civil War may have destroyed the South as a military threat, there was no opportunity for the white population to learn new attitudes about labor; they could not conceive of doing the worst jobs – such as dirty, dangerous mine work – themselves, nor could they conceive of blacks living amongst them as equals. Thus, they came up with creative solutions to restore the old order.)

By the end of the Union occupation of the South in 1877, Blackmon reports, “every formerly Confederate state except Virginia had adopted the practice of leasing black prisoners into commercial hands. … In return for what they paid each state, the companies received absolute control of the prisoners.” He indicates that prisoners were “routinely starved and brutalized:

“The consequences for African Americans were grim. In the first two years that Alabama leased its prisoners, nearly 20 percent of them died. In the following year, mortality rose to 35 percent. In the fourth, nearly 45 percent were killed.”

Black women were vulnerable in a different way; there was absolutely no recourse for them against sexual exploitation by white men. Sharecropper families were especially at risk because they could be accused of owing money to the landlord (legitimately or not) and then threatened with a prison camp if some sort of quid pro quo were not worked out: rape was considered an issue of entitlement.

So many blacks left for the North between 1910 and 1930, the movement was known as “The Great Migration.”

The black characters in this book must be seen as actors in a system that left them few options for self-respect.

Evaluation: This book is one of four selected in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, the international contest co-sponsored by Amazon.com, CreateSpace and Penguin Group (USA) that seeks to discover the next popular novel. And what a wonderful effort from a first time author! Apparently the story is “loosely based” on the author’s family history. I thought the author took a chapter or two to work into her stride and feel comfortable, and after that, it was smooth sailing for both author and reader.

One rather unique aspect of this book is that those who have reviewed it so far have had radically different reactions to the characters – each found someone she really liked and really disliked, but none of us so far agreed in our selections! (As for me, I loved Annalaura and her eldest son right from the beginning. My respect for them only increased as the book progressed. The men elicited – well, sometimes sympathy, but sometimes a desire to help them leave their earthly existence.) One thing is certain: you can’t come away from reading this without a strong emotional response to the story and the people in it. I really liked this book, and look forward to more from this author – hopefully, a sequel!

Rating: 4/5

Published by AmazonEncore, 2010

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11 Responses to Black History Month: Review of “Page from a Tennessee Journal: A Novel” by Francine Thomas Howard

  1. Kay says:

    I’ve just pre-ordered this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it and putting it on my radar.

  2. Aarti says:

    I love how you incorporated social history into your review. Very well done! And I also really liked Cleveland. What a great son 🙂 I loved both Annalaura and Eula Mae, and both of their stories made my heart break.

  3. This does sound like a very worthwhile read…I’m marking on my list!!!

  4. JoAnn says:

    This sounds very good… thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. susan says:

    I thought I commented already. I’m linking this for LLM. Thanks, Jill.

    Vicky has my copy. 🙂

  6. Margot says:

    Another Wow book for you. I’ll bet your emotions were totally involved too. After reading books like this and my recent read of Ethel Water’s childhood, how can a reader not have their heart wrenched on behalf of these people.

  7. softdrink says:

    I just read Aarti’s review, too…this one sounds fantastic.

  8. Ari says:

    This book sounds so good! I love historical fiction and the premise sounds really interesting. I didn’t know that this sort of thing was still going on during the Jim Crow south era, I thought the whole white men raping black women thing was mostly during slavery times and I’m appalled. Ugh, this book might make me mad too =/

    Thank you for this review Jill. I love your reviews so much, honest, well-written with a little humor and always very informative.

  9. Nymeth says:

    Wow. Just wow re: the facts you shared 😦 Adding both this and Slavery by Another Name to my wishlist.

  10. Pingback: REVIEWS « Meet Francine Thomas Howard

  11. Pingback: Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews | Justine Larbalestier

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