First-novelist Clair expands on several stories from Rattlebone (1994) to chronicle a decade in the life of a midwestern schoolteacher.
In the fall of 1950, 23-year-old October Brown is about to begin her second year at the Stowe School and pleased to be living in the most respectable boardinghouse for African-Americans in Wyandotte County, Kansas. Respectability is important to October, whose father Franklin murdered wife Carrie in 1931 while their two young daughters were doing the dishes downstairs. Aunts Frances and Maude lovingly raised the girls in Chillicothie, Ohio, but their refusal to discuss that dreadful night or its aftermath has left a lot of emotional loose ends. October falls in love with the father of one of her students and becomes pregnant; when he returns to his wife, she goes home to Chillicothie to have her baby. Older sister Vergie, long married but unable to bear a child, is only too happy to take David when the shell-shocked new mother shows no interest. October gets a teaching job in Kansas City, Missouri, where no one knows her scandalous past, but soon regrets giving up her baby. Over the years, tensions mount as October tries to find some place for herself in David’s life while Vergie fiercely resists every effort as a move toward snatching back “her” son. Awkward, pseudo-mythic interpolations by the girls’ dead mother add nothing to the textured but self-conscious narrative, which calls too much attention to details like October’s love of sewing and fashion. Hyped-up prose (“They wept . . . for their own pitiful, wonderful selves, their stupidity and their courage”) doesn’t make the sisters’ final reconciliation as moving as the author clearly intends, and tentative closure with the father they thought was dead is achieved through an outrageous coincidence only Dickens could have pulled off.
Some fine descriptive passages and a refreshingly nuanced portrait of African-Americans who are not obsessed by race, but the tale’s overly studied quality suggests that this material has been worked over one too many times.