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Absalom's Daughters


Absalom's Daughters

At the intersection of race and familial relations, in the setting of the 1950s Deep South and the Jim Crow laws, and with influences from William Faulkner comes ABSALOM’S DAUGHTERS, Suzanne Feldman’s debut. A passing cast of unusual characters, a splash of magical realism, and touches of Southern mythology lend an air of mystery to what is ultimately a coming-of-age novel.

Half-sisters Cassie and Judith live in rural Mississippi, in the tiny town of Heron-Neck. Though blood relatives in a small town, they are worlds apart: Cassie is black, Judith is white. The girls’ white father, Bill, abandons Judith’s family when she’s only 11, so Judith starts to deliver laundry to help earn money for the family. Cassie’s grandmother and mother run the town laundry, and Cassie begins helping Judith on deliveries. Thus, a relationship that lies somewhere between friends and distant family is born.

When the girls are teenagers, Judith’s mother receives a letter informing them that a distant relative has died and there is an inheritance to be claimed in Virginia. Bill is already there, and the letter’s writer, Eula, doesn’t want the scoundrel to claim what also rightfully belongs to his abandoned family. Judith hatches a plan to drive to Virginia and wants Cassie to come with her; in her mind, Cassie should have as much right to the inheritance as she does.

"Cassie is easy to root for, and even Judith, in her ignorance and ultimately selfish goals, can be cheered on."

As the girls slowly drive northeast, they run into a veritable cast of characters willing to help them along the way. Most question why a black girl and a white girl are traveling together. They tell people they are heading to New York City so Judith can become a singer. This is not entirely a lie --- that is Judith’s plan after she gets her share of the inheritance. Cassie, however, is looking for Porterville, a town she heard her neighbor in Heron-Neck tell his clients about, where a black person could go and become white. Cassie’s goal (which honestly seems a little out of left field) is to find Porterville, but first she must locate the town of Hilltop, neither of which appear on any map.

The girls find Hilltop when their car breaks down and a man named Ovid Beale tows them and their vehicle to the little town. The car is miraculously fixed, and Ovid gives them directions to Porterville, informing them that they must arrive before dark. But they don’t, and when they reach the crossroads where Ovid said Porterville would be, there is nothing but trees.

Cassie and Judith eventually make it to South Carolina unscathed when the old car breaks down again. The first people to come along are Junior and Charlie Mallard, who run a mechanic shop in Porterville. There, the girls are met with kindness, and Cassie is offered what she thinks she wants: the means to “become white” in the form of a little ball of a magical tar-like substance that lightens skin and changes hair texture. The catch is if Cassie tells anyone about the power of the tar, the effects are immediately reversed.

As the girls travel by train from South Carolina to Virginia --- Cassie in the colored car --- Cassie contemplates the tar and what it could be like to be a white girl. One can’t help but hope she decides not to use it, to find who she is without the use of a little sticky black ball gained from a town that’s never in the same place.

There are some missed opportunities in ABSALOM’S DAUGHTERS. More could have been done with the very real danger that faces Cassie and Judith as they slowly travel through the South. Feldman could have delved more into the harsh reality of the Jim Crow laws of the era. As it is, all we get is that there is no bathroom for Cassie to use at service stations. The author also could have played up the Southern mythology she introduces but never fully explains.

ABSALOM’S DAUGHTERS is a fun, quick read with some heavy subject matter that is made lighter than one might expect. Cassie is easy to root for, and even Judith, in her ignorance and ultimately selfish goals, can be cheered on. Feldman, who has extensively studied William Faulkner, purposefully sprinkles ABSALOM, ABSALOM! references throughout --- the name Judith being one of the most obvious --- and fans of the Faulkner novel will especially enjoy finding them in this book.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on August 5, 2016

Absalom's Daughters
by Suzanne Feldman

  • Publication Date: July 5, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1627794530
  • ISBN-13: 9781627794534