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An ambitious work, aspiring to the mythic and mixing invention, black folklore and legend, and, it seems, Hamilton's own family history. High John the Conqueror plays a role as John de Conquer (pronounced Con-care), "best god" of Mount Kenya; and John Henry is John de Conquer's older but lesser brother god, who displeases his brother by living and mixing with humans. This begins with their little sister god Pretty Pearl, concerned about the people being taken into slavery, asking to "go down and see for myself." So John de Conquer changes himself and her to albatrosses for the crossing with a slave ship, then bides their time (to Pretty's impatience) for 200 human years (two days for the gods), until the slaves are free. Then he leaves her for her "god trial" with a John de Conquer conjure root around her neck, four spirits whom she can call out of the root as needed, and four shifts: two to fit and two larger "in case you needs to become de maw woman." Thereafter Pearl goes through the forest with Dwahro, the spirit she's let out, who desperately wants to become human and free. Sometimes Pearl changes to Mother Pearl, and finally the two Pearls split, so that Dwahro, Mother Pearl, and Pretty are three when they meet the Ani-Yum 'Wiya (Real People), or Cherokee, and settle down with the Real Peoples' friends, the black "inside folk" who live in the forest on the land they call Promise, cultivating ginseng. It is there that John Henry shows up, Dwahro earns his human status, and Pretty, in a pique, abuses her magic by using it to frighten the children. Her root dries up and she sickens, but is later given the gift of forgetfulness. Thus when John de Conquer comes down once more he gives Dwahro his wish to be human, imposes the same fate on Pretty Pearl, and condemns John Henry, who persists in his human plan to contest the blast drill with his hammers, to die with his hammers in his hand. As for Mother Pearl, who has become the community's cooking-cleaning-child tending mawmaw woman, she goes along when the inside people, displaced by the railroad, are guided North to Ohio by the Cherokee; then she returns to Mount Kenya, leaving young Pearl with the "inside" people's leader Black Salt, who takes the name of Perry (Hamilton's grandfather's name). The whole invention has more the quality of a pageant than a novel. As such, it is an impressive construction and, clearly, genuinely felt.
Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
ISBN: 0064401782
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1983


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