Friday, January 22, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Keepers of the House

The 1965 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Shirley Ann Grau's The Keepers of the House, is an odd book. The writing flows smoothly, the descriptions are almost lyrical, but the characters feel oddly flat. Grau is a Southern writer -- she was raised in Alabama in Selma and Montgomery and has lived in New Orleans for most of her life -- and she does know the landscape, both geographic and cultural. Where she's weak in this book is in creating characters who feel like actual people.

Grau's work is described as examining race and gender, and that's reasonably accurate. The Keepers of the House is the only piece of her fiction I can recall reading, but given that the book is set in a nameless Southern state that screams Alabama, two of the major characters are female, and the dramatic conclusion pivots around the discovery that a local wealthy white guy had secretly married his black mistress several decades earlier race and gender do seem to fit as pigeonholes.

I did a little research on the author because I'd never heard of her before reading this book. She apparently took a lot of heat for her fiction. She was, naturally, accused of portraying Southerners in a poor light, but I think she actually nailed them pretty well. My own experience is that Southerners are really good at maintaining a polite facade while being quietly nasty. After all, "bless your heart" is Southern-speak for "fuck you." I did have a few problems with the premise for the dramatic conclusion of the book -- it seemed like a bit of a stretch to suggest that the local townspeople would turn as violent as they did after learning about an interracial marriage that had taken place almost 40 years earlier and both the white husband and black wife were now deceased, one for over 5 years and one more recently.

If the family had been doing something like encouraging blacks to register to vote or hosting civil rights activists in their home,yes, then the violence would be believable. . . but discovering that a neighbor's black bastards weren't bastards after all? Especially when all of those "bastards" had been living up North for their entire adult lives? It struck me as a bit of a stretch. White racists in general, not just Southerners, can turn appallingly violent for some petty reasons, but the revelation that two dead people had been married? Not bloody likely. That's more the type of thing that would get a person snubbed socially -- people turning their back on you in church, not inviting you to their kids' high school graduation parties or weddings -- while generating a lot of local gossip ("Her family has always been a little strange. After all, after his white wife died, her grandfather actually married. . . "). It wouldn't inspire the local White Citizens Council to terrorize a white woman and her 4 small children; the worst it would do is cost her politician husband votes.

On the other hand, despite the gaping holes in the plot and all of its logical flaws, The Keepers of the House is very readable. Grau might have had an unfortunate tendency towards melodrama, but the book flows. It holds the reader's interest. It's not until you've finished it that you find yourself thinking, Well, that made no sense. Which means that it's a little tricky figuring out where to place this one on the bad to good scale for the Pulitzer winners. As far as the writing goes, it's up on the higher end, but the plotting flaws bother me. Maybe numerically on a scale of 1 to 10 it would be a 6 or 7. It falls on the good end of the scale, but it's not top tier.

Would I recommend it to other readers? Yes, if you enjoy books by authors like Jodi Picoult or Joanna Trollope. It definitely felt like something Trollope could have written, although her characters would have been more fully fleshed out. Trollope puts real people into cardboard landscapes; Grau put paper dolls into a real world. Not a bad book, in sort, but not not a great one either.

Next up on the list: Collected Stories by Katherine Ann Porter. Maybe it's because I'm finally moving far enough up the last to start getting into relatively recent (within my lifetime) publications, but this is another one the L'Anse Public Library actually has on the shelves. Maybe I'm going to be able to whip through the second half of the list a lot faster than I did the first half. Assuming I live long enough, of course. The way famous people in their 60s have been dropping dead lately makes me kind of glad I have no talent.

1 comment:

  1. I can't read books on southerners..they make my ass hurt.


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