Jesmyn Ward, debut author of Where the Line Bleeds, in my opinion, has created a work of art. Now, I know that art is in the eye of the beholder, or is it beauty?; maybe I am getting confused with another saying. Is it one man’s art is another man’s garbage? No, that’s not it—but you get the picture. What are the ingredients or essential criteria that make me sit up and take special notice with some books? Besides the fact that I am a nerd, albeit, a cool nerd, as my daughter says?
Give me a southern setting, family dynamics, descriptive scenery, a sense of place, flawed, wounded characters, cultural aspects, conflict and good writing and you got me on GP. Put the story together in the backdrop of African American culture that is real, reverberates with a contemporary and current theme juxtaposed with historical aspects and that makes for the Dera Williams stamp of approval. Beware, this book is not for everyone, and maybe not for most people and from the reaction of my online book club, I might be the lone fan in my reading circle.
It is the summer 2005, in the rural town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and 18 year-old twins, Joshua and Christophe DeLisle have just graduated from high school. Joshua is able to obtain employment at the dock, a job “with good money” while Christophe, unable to secure a job, drifts into selling drugs; he feels it is his only option. Their lives are influenced by the area in which they live—90 miles from New Orleans, in a small town, where segregation is practiced by tradition as it is in most small southern towns, by the socio-economic status that is endemic to these conditions in the South and the U.S. in general, by their Creole culture, by the limited opportunities and the seemingly low expectations and aspirations of the characters; this is not a pretty story. On the eve of Katrina, when the nation was exposed to the ills of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; with all the inadequacies that America witnessed and appalled the majority of us, the DeLisle twins; their beloved maternal grandmother, Ma-mee; their mother, Cille, who abandoned them; their crack addicted father, Sandman, and a host of other relatives, friends and townspeople are like characters in a play called Disaster About to Happen.
I felt as if I were sitting in a theatre, a witness to a family and a people on the verge of a crisis; a series of scenes of people playing roles that were foreshadowed to end badly. Someone said Southerners move slowly; I can attest to that as a frequent visitor to the South, place of my birth. The hot, lazy summer days, time moving at a snail’s pace, summertime in the rural South is like no other. Sweet tea, swatting flies, family gatherings, Friday fish frys; there is an attitude of I’ll get to it when I get to it. The fictional town of Bois Sauvage could have been the rural town where my family reunions in Arkansas on the Louisiana border are held or any of the surrounding towns . Joshua and Christophe could be any one of my young male kinfolk who are victims of their circumstances; wracked by poverty, lack of employment, lack of ambition, lack of opportunities, real and imagined, drifting, aimless; their biggest hope to get a job at the mill or plant where their fathers and uncles work; the jobs that have dried up, that are no longer available. Walking around with a beer can in one hand and a blunt in the other, occasional trips to the gambling boats on the Misssissppi, making babies, and bringing another generation into the same vicious cycle. Despite integration decades ago of schools and workplaces, there is the pervasive awareness of racial differences, complicit consciously or unconsciously by both black and white in keeping it alive. Driving along the highways of Arkansas and Louisiana, I have seen the fine, stately homes that are inhabited by whites, homes the native blacks see on their way to Little Rock or Shreveport or the nearest Wal-Mart as the Highway 110 Joshua and Christophe drive by on the way to New Orleans; places they cannot imagine to live in and the simmering resentment that is carried in their hearts.
These were the circumstances and the breeding ground; the stage I saw that was set for Katrina when I was down South in 2005 just one month prior to the biggest natural disaster of the century. But as the Gulf Coast was virtually washed away, I see hope; hope in the rebuilding, and a change in our nation with a new presidency and a renewed hope by those who have felt disenfranchised and displaced.
I loved the nuances of the characters, their dialect so reminded me of my childhood friend’s New Orleans born family; the characteristics of a black family with Creole roots; the family loyalties and closeness. This was a story about twin brothers and their unconditional love, loyalty and conflict, about mothers and sons, about fathers and sons and the complex emotions of abandonment, and choices that can change lives in a blink of an eye. There was some exquisite writing, phrases reminiscent of Morrison--- “The marsh greenery shuddered and bent into the caress of the air crossing from the gulf to the lake……” (pg 161). Having said that, I will admit Ward did occasionally get bogged down in details and that is coming from someone who thrives on detailed stories. She also overdid it on the metaphors and similes; indicative of writers who obtain a MFA in writing. There is this belief in degreed writing programs that the more literary devices used the better; this is so not true, in fact an oversaturation can be deemed amateurish. But do not get it twisted; this is a literary work; it is not urban fiction as it has been defined by publishers despite the presence of young people and drugs.
So, there you have it. The thoughts of Dera R. Williams; I loved this book but as much as I did, I would not recommend it to my local book club; I can see them cursing me out, right and left about the long meandering sentences. So, my recommendation would be for other nerds that are lovers of southern, family dramas with a literary bent that address social issues.