Refreshingly unconventional saga of an African-American family and its brightest ornament.
That would be Matilda Housewright, light-skinned daughter of Jacob. Matilda spends her formative years in Washington, DC, where her daddy is the major-domo in the home of Senator Hunnicutt, a mover and shaker in the 1920s and ’30s. The Housewrights, declares Matilda, “aren’t alley cats.” Quite the contrary: They’re model servants and diplomats, with an intuitive understanding of the powerful and prejudiced. Matilda is smart and outspoken. Too plain to attract suitors, she won’t make the compromises required of women of color in the few professions open to them. After the Senator retires and the family moves to the Midwest (Chicago, evidently), Matilda’s older brother Martin starts a successful catering business, but her participation in his first event is a disaster. She’s a perfectionist who, maddeningly, is always right. Martin fires her and moves out of the family home, where Matilda will reign undisturbed for the rest of her long life. Haynes (All American Dream Dolls, 1997, etc.) has fashioned a clutter-free saga that skims over an entire century. It begins with Jacob’s three siblings refusing to follow their father into domestic service and ends, most movingly, with Matilda offering safe harbor to her great-nephew, a sweet-natured, desperately unhappy youngster undone by drugs. In between, Haynes, always subtly and always delicately, makes it clear that for the black employee of a white master, there is no margin for error. Even proud Matilda has to make a shocking deal to secure the family future. The stakes are higher if you’re black, as Martin’s son David, an idealistic Panther, will find out in another shock. Haynes has a masterly way of not letting the reader become too comfortable with the serene surface of domestic life, where everything comes at a cost.
A memorable portrait of a woman of character who charms, baffles, and infuriates four generations.