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There is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden (1973) was a dense, blues-style mÉlange of childhood memories, all belonging to young writer Nathaniel Witherspoon--Forrest's fictional alter-ego. In The Bloodworth Orphans (1977), Nathaniel was a minor character within a half-involving swirl of melodrama, sermonizing, testifying, black family-history, and Joycean/Faulkneresque prose. And now Nathaniel is center-stage again--though this rich, unshapely family-history novel focuses most on his grandmother Sweetie Reed. Circa 1958 the 91-year-old Sweetie is at last telling the 21-year-old Nathaniel (a rather pompous college dropout) the family secrets. Primarily, and most compellingly, Sweetie tells of her confrontation with her hated father I. V. (an Uncle Tom-ish former slave): on his deathbed he told her about the plantation-night of her mother's conception--when ""blackbirding"" slaveowner Rollins raped African beauty Jubell but was nearly killed by doomed macho-slave Reece Shank Haywood. (The Iago-like I.V., responsible for this violent horror, saved his master's life--and later married Angelina, offspring of the Jubell/Rollins union.) Furthermore, Sweetie recalls--in feverish bits and pieces--her abduction by Klan-ish ""patrollers"" as a child (Angelina was killed); her rejection, upon return, by I.V.; her subsequent arranged-marriage to old, up-from-slavery Judge Jericho Witherspoon (who really lusted after Angelina). And meanwhile, in about half the novel's chapters, Nathaniel himself recalls grandfather Witherspoon's 1944 funeral-day--when tiny religious-fanatic Sweetie, then 77 and estranged from 117-year-old Witherspoon for 40 years, made shocking appearances at the funeral home and the church, delivering stream-of-consciousness tirades about the much-respected Judge. (""Nothing in their ceremonial history, nor memory, had prepared them for this outrage and Sweetie Reed's revelations of her dream within a dream of intimacy. . . ."") These longwinded, thickly metaphorical speeches--and the story-within-a-story framework throughout--makes for often-static fiction, especially in the novel's weaker second half. And a final revelation about the Sweetie/Witherspoon marriage is melodramatically predictable--without really illuminating the recurrent themes of spirituality-vs.-carnality and a stormy, conflicted facial/psychological heritage. Still, the dramatization of plantation tensions--with ambivalent slave responses to supposed ""freedom""--is often powerful in the 19th-century flashbacks; the funeral-day confrontation, if belabored, is resonant--with comic horror as well as historical guilts. And though Forrest's elaborate prose is sometimes more self-conscious than eloquent, it is more consistently, genuinely poetic than in his previous novels--mixing the colloquial and the literary in controlled, rhythmic waves of imagery.

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 1983
Publisher: Random House