We live in a world of contention, so do we need to look back to our past to understand the divides still present today? How has music bridged this divide, and can it still do that today? You might just find the answer to those questions in Suzanne Feldman’s debut novel Absalom’s Daughters, which deals with issues still prevalent today: race, identity, gender, even family, all set to the music of the “oldies stations” (back then just the regular stations). The book takes place in the Jim Crow era South, where the focus is on two half-sisters, one black and one white. Cassie is black and Judith is white, but they both are poor and share the same dad. We follow them on a road trip where they encounter their shared past and their future.
Feldman’s writing is heavily influenced by the works of Faulkner, the title itself is a reference to his novel Absalom, Absalom!. Beyond the title you’ll find bits of Faulkner all over, from the Southern setting to the inter-generational family dynamics, in which the issues of race and the implications of slavery are explored. At its heart the story is about two young half-sisters embarking on a road trip to forge their futures—no Faulknerian confusion here, but a straightforward story from the viewpoint of Cassie. Along the way, elements of magical realism seep into their journey via men that are mules, ghosts in former plantations, mysterious towns, and a tar that can erase an identity.
While not outright musical, the plot is primarily driven by music. It’s what brings together Cassie and Judith, the divided sisters living in the South in the 1950s. Judith’s dream to sing on the “reddio” is part of what spurs them to leave Heron-Neck, Mississippi and head north, first to Virginia and then New York. The other part is to claim a family inheritance in Virginia, one that forces them to encounter a father who ran out on one and won’t acknowledge the other because she is black.
The novel almost reads unrealistic because it’s hard to imagine two women, one black and one white, driving unimpeded in the Jim Crow south. While they do get harassed (there are passing mentions of the KKK), the danger and anxiety Cassie feels is never fully realized. Part of this lends itself to the elements of magical realism mixed into the book. In a world where men can be mules and people can alter their identity, anything is possible.
The novel overall is enjoyable: readers will be treated to descriptions of the many places and landscapes that Cassie and Judith encounter. The descriptions are almost musical, definitely lyrical, and provide a mood drenched in sepia, of an era long gone. Readers encounter such passages as: “On dry days the dust rose in weightless puffs when Cassie stepped her feet in it, and stayed in the air around her, sticking to her sweaty legs and to the hem of her dress, to her hands, and to the white sheets when she took them down from the lines strung in the yard behind the laundry.”
Fair warning to those looking to read this book, some of the language used is shocking. Of course this is a product of the time period it is set in, essentially what someone would expect to come from the mouths of people in the 1950s. At parts it’s almost uncomfortable to read, but it provides an important confrontation of our past. If you can get past the derogatory remarks, Feldman’s use of the (inoffensive) Southern dialect adds an authentic feel to the novel.
Any history and music lover will be interested in the bits of music history sprinkled throughout. Feldman’s character Judith is primarily interested in “colored music”. She even remarks at one point that a song “ain’t right” because it “ain’t the same guys”. What they are listening to on the radio is a white version of an African American song, which was a very real phenomenon that occurred in this era. Many African American songs in that era were “whitewashed”so they could be played through mainstream channels. There are even complaints that this happens today. Hell, even Elvis’s famous song “Hound Dog” is the result of “whitewashing” a Big Mama Thornton song (arguably his career, but I digress). Again, passages like this can seem uncomfortable but like the characters of Cassie and Judith, Feldman forces us to confront this past. Not all of the music references are this charged; in fact music is mainly used as a binding element. However, in a novel about the past there is going to be a racially charged subtext.
If you’re looking for a contemporary novel with a Faulkner feel or love the music from the 1950s, then this is the book for you. Even if you don’t fit that description it might be fun to take a trip in a time machine and remember our not so distant past. So maybe pop on an old record (or ITunes, Spotify, whatever) and give this book a chance.
By Suzanne Feldman
Henry Holt and Co. (July 5, 2016)
For more information about Suzanne Feldman visit http://us.macmillan.com/author/suzannefeldman