- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006


By Edward P. Jones

Amistad, $25.95, 416 pages

“All Aunt Hagar’s Children” unwinds at a wonderfully languid pace, much like a

lazy summer afternoon in Washington, D.C., the setting for most of the short stories in this collection. The rhythm of the book stands in direct contrast to its author’s rapid rise to literary stardom.

Edward P. Jones was a little-known writer in his early 50s with a day job summarizing articles for Tax Notes, a magazine in Washington, D.C., when he began work on his first novel (“The Known World”) in 2001. A portrait of the life of a black slave owner in antebellum Virginia, it was met with a stream of superlatives from critics and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004.

Mr. Jones was wholly unprepared for the media onslaught that followed: He did not own a car, a fax machine or a cell phone. His roots are humble; his mother was a dishwasher in a French restaurant in Washington and made $75 a month when the getting was good. (Mr. Jones now has a driver and a fax but no cell phone, which, as he told a New York Times reporter, would make him appear pretentious.)

The author’s aversion to pretense is apparent in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children”: His prose is lyrical, elegant and free of unnecessary flourishes. What is most striking, however, is his impeccable storytelling. He slides effortlessly back and forward in time, dropping hints of what’s to come, all the while weaving a haunting and eloquent tapestry of African American life during much of the 20th century in Washington (“Tapestry” is the title of his final story).

Mr. Jones, who grew up in Washington and left only to attend the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, treads on familiar ground. In 1991, before his stunning leap to fame, he published a well received but little-read collection of short stories (“Lost in the City”) that were also set in the nation’s capital.

In the new collection, his first story (“In the Blink of God’s Eye”) illuminates one of the book’s larger themes: the difficulty of leaving one’s shortcomings behind and starting anew, as many of the characters attempt to do in Washington. Ruth and Aubrey, newlyweds, move from Virginia to the nation’s capital at the beginning of the 20th century. But an orphan they find outside their home slowly drives a wedge between them, and Ruth returns to Virginia to live with her parents.

Aubrey rides a horse to Ruth’s parents’ house one morning, intent on bringing her back to Washington. After spying her from a distance chopping wood, however, he decides against it and returns home. Aubrey never explicitly says why he leaves Ruth, but his suffering is evident:

“He halted at the mouth of the bridge, the land of Washington, D.C., spread out forever and ever before him … He ran his hand over his meager mustache and the beginnings of a beard. He wiped the snow from them and thought what a wasted effort it was since there was more snow to come … His heart was pained, and it was pain enough to overwhelm a city of men.”

Pain is aplenty in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” Sgt. Percival Channing — in bed with a prostitute as “Resurrecting Methuselah” begins — discovers while stationed with the army in Okinawa that he has a rare and emasculating disease: breast cancer. He can’t help but wonder if it is punishment for his sins. Channing returns to Washington, but he finds it impossible to repair his marriage.

Though Channing and other characters attempt to escape the past, they continue to be defined and even haunted by it, sometimes by events so insignificant they hardly seem worth remembering.

In “Root Worker,” Glynnis Holloway’s mother, Alberta, suffers from mental episodes brought on by witches “riding” her. Glynnis is a doctor who runs her own practice out of the basement of her $650,000 three-story home on S Street, N.W. She has risen much higher in the world than her father, who is a chauffeur.

When traditional medicine fails Alberta, the Holloways decide to visit a root doctor in North Carolina. Glynnis reveals that she may be responsible for her mother’s affliction. She recalls how as a young girl she grew impatient as her father talked to a woman on K Street, prompting her to let loose a string of insults: “You so black and fat and ugly, I don’t know why my daddy even talkin to you.” Perhaps a root doctor passing by had heard her outburst and decided to right the wrong by setting the witches upon her mother, Glynnis concludes.

Glynnis contends with her own history, but so too must she confront the history of her people. When she travels to North Carolina, she must set aside faith in her concept of medicine and accept the methods of the root doctor, Imogene, who manages to cure Alberta. Glynnis befriends Imogene and returns to Washington with many of the plants the root doctor had used to treat her patients.

One morning in North Carolina, Glynnis watched Imogene flick on a television that she had just received as a birthday gift, intent on watching the same program that was on the night before. Glynnis explains that the TV is not like a film that you can stop. “[She] would note the beginning of an everlasting affection for the woman that moment. She had seen her do something extraordinary for Alberta … but she did not know what a simple television could and could not do.”

As Mr. Jones unravels story after story, the weight of the collective begins to supercede that of each individual tale. An orphan struggles to adjust after being reunited with his family; a woman goes blind while riding a D.C. bus; a widower is busted for drugs after the younger women he courts bring them into his apartment — Mr. Jones captures a wide and varied cross-section of life.

By the time readers reach the final story, we see events unfold not in a vacuum, but as part of a larger narrative. In “Tapestry,” Anne Perry and George Carter, newlyweds, leave Picayune, Miss. and set out for Washington to start their new life together. George insults Anne aboard the train, cutting a wound so deep that she wonders if she should leave her husband and return to Mississippi.

She is reminded of the brutal past of her people when George nods off next to her and begins talking in his sleep: “I’ll clean every barn before I sleep, master. No need for that thing. No need for that again. I’ll do it. I told yall I’d do it all.”

Meanwhile, Washington looms as a land of opportunity. According to “South Carolina old folks,” Washingtonians “threw away their dishes after every meal because it was cheaper to buy new ones.”

The stories of all the characters in the book come rushing back to us as Anne ponders her decision, a moment of promise amid the pain and sorrow that plague humanity.

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