McIlvain (Stein House, 2013, etc.) takes readers back to Texas at the end of Reconstruction in a novel about a man trying to come to terms with his biracial son’s radical decision and the return of a woman whom he’d thought he’d lost.
In 1875, plantation owner Al Waters’ gifted son Toby, who’s leaving for Harvard Medical School in the fall, comes home from a college graduation party enraged by a rumor that he’s not wholly white—although his skin is light enough that he can easily “pass” as Caucasian, as he has all his life. Al confesses that Toby’s mother was a black slave; Toby was conceived, Al says, on a night when he was drunk and despondent over the fact that a woman named Amelia wouldn’t leave her husband for him. Later, Toby, for reasons that are hard for Al to fathom, decides to embrace the black side of his heritage; the young man comes back from his first year at Harvard with his hair cut very close to highlight his new identity. Al had married his brother’s widow and freed her slaves, and he now runs the plantation as a cooperative with the freedmen; members of the Ku Klux Klan try to terrify the cooperative into submission, but they’re beaten back. Meanwhile, Al continues to struggle with his son’s choices. To say that McIlvain writes well is an understatement; she makes readers truly feel for her characters, and as a result, they seem very much like real people, not fictional ones. Among the notable secondary players is Amelia, whom Al marries, and she helps him reconcile with Toby in a process that proves to be long and subtle. There’s definitely a sagalike quality to McIlvain’s tale, with key moments of both sorrow and optimism—good people die, but others carry on and have children. She also offers an ending that will remind readers that the end of Reconstruction was also the beginning of Jim Crow. But still, through it all, one gets a sense of indomitable hope.
Readers will likely welcome a sequel to this well-wrought historical family saga.