CIVIL WARS by Rosellen Brown
Kirkus Star

CIVIL WARS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Like Tender Mercies, Brown's new novel trades in the displacement of habitual living by catastrophe, the new and uncomfortable intimacies that re-build and re-knit around the old. Teddy and Jessie Carll are veterans of the civil-rights movement. Teddy, in fact, is one of its old white superstars, a Southerner himself: charismatic, shriven, pure. And they still live in Jackson, Mississippi--with two teenagers, with jobs as a textbook salesman (Teddy) and a teacher (Jessie). True, the couple now feels less than wanted in the black neighborhood they have stubbornly and solitarily integrated. But their fears of middle-aged slump and compromise are as nothing next to what suddenly befalls: Teddy's sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car wreck--and their two young children are handed over to a surprised Teddy and Jessie. It is a grotesque situation: the dead father was a Klan sympathizer; the guardianship surely had been only a formal afterthought in the will; and the kids have their father's virulent prejudices. Still, it is with the introduction of these two shocked, racist children into the Carll family that Brown's book comes most deeply alive. The kids are like bewildered new flames entering into the ashes of old ideals, disillusions. (""Every mass meeting had to be turned into an instrument to be used; every grief had to have the passion threshed out of it to lead the hungry flock."") Teddy hauls eight-year-old O'Neill to demonstrations--and, adjusting, the boy comes to like them somehow. Helen is 13, nun-like, distanced, intelligent; she considers joining the Klan toys with suicide, utterly flummoxing Jessie. And the result is one of the best portraits of a besieged family since Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children--even if, filtered through Jessie's viewpoints, this rich turmoil does cause the book to bog down now and again. (So many unexpected emphases of Jessie's sentimental education sometimes crowd one another to a standstill.) Other minor flaws: Teddy's brief, late desertion of the family seems crucial but vague; a climax involving a Jackson flood feels too contrived, pat, symbolic. But this is fiction without a rigid architecture, with enough freedom to allow its great breadth of generosity: extraordinary details of perception, strong sentences that defy easy assumption, that end in unexpected insights. In sum: a lush book of real feeling, a deeply human novel.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf