This multigenerational saga about African-Americans in a small Oklahoma town covers a large chunk of the 20th century.
The novel’s 91-year-old narrator, who plays no active role and has no viable reason to know the intimate details of the characters’ stories, allows Cooper (Wild Stars Seeing Midnight Suns, 2006, etc.) to adopt a folksy, sometimes preachy tone—with a decided sympathy for Jehovah’s Witness theology—and a casual approach to dates and facts that might be considered sloppy otherwise. Hattie B. Brown explains that her story is shaped like a “Y,” two strands coming together. The “Strong” line is much more substantially developed. In 1910, Val Strong, a cowboy of mixed African and Native American parentage, marries teacher Irene Lowell and builds her a house in Wideland, Okla., where they raise two daughters. Independent Tante leaves for college back East and never looks back, but passive Rose stays in her parents’ house after their deaths. A teacher like her mother, Rose marries smooth-talking Leroy and has a daughter, Myine Wee, but Leroy takes up with an old girlfriend. Evil Tonya poisons Rose, then knocks off Leroy for good measure so she can claim possession of the house. She turns Myine Wee into a Cinderella stepdaughter servant. Eventually Myine Wee hears from Aunt Tante, now living in France, who swoops into town to save the house and give Myine Wee start-up cash to finish her education and become a teacher. Meanwhile, one of Rose’s best students, Herman Tenderman, is making his way in the world—getting a college degree, joining the navy, working as head mechanic in a garage where he’s paid less than the less-skilled whites, marrying a floozy he eventually leaves. As the years speed by, along with the chapters—and they do speed—Herman and Myine Wee cross paths frequently. Although they are obviously made for each other, not until they are approaching their 60s do they acknowledge their love and complete Ms. Brown’s “Y.”
Cooper’s manufactured folktale pulls all the expected strings too hard.