The Keepers of the House, by Shirley Ann Grau

by Robert A. Parker

This is another novel that has sat on my shelves for a while. Grau was recognized a half century ago as an important writer, but has lately been forgotten. After a recent note revived my interest in this 1964 novel, I opened its covers. And was immediately enthralled.

It brought back memories of Faulkner. The style was different, much smoother, but it was concerned with family, with generations and ancestors, and with the culture of the South.

This is the story of the Howland family. We learn early on that their history is being recalled by Abigail, and she says that it is about her grandfather, about Margaret, and about herself. (It is also about their life in the changing farmhouse of the title.)

The work begins as a series of portraits, complete in themselves. We read, first, of grandfather William’s courtship, marriage, and widowhood, then of the beautifully portrayed family celebration of the marriage of his daughter Abigail, and then of his sojourn into the swamp to win a bet that he can find an illegal still. He journeys in a boat, and it is a particularly evocative portrayal of man confronting nature, reminiscent of Faulkner.

On this journey, William encounters Margaret, a poor black woman, and we then read of her lonely upbringing before and after her own grandmother dies. Again, there is a moving portrait, this time of her family’s encounter with death. This is followed by additional sensitive writing, as Margaret encounters the plant life around her, as well as the insect and animal life. Finally, she meets Howland and goes to work for him. She is seventeen, and we are unprepared for what happens next. But are we unprepared because Grau was reluctant to write about the sex that soon looms between them, or because writers wrote about this less often in the sixties?

Grau then skips a generation, and the longest narrative is given to Abigail, the granddaughter of Howland, a Howland who has already impregnated Margaret five times. Three generations are joined, and we are up to the present. But the next 30 to 40 pages are disappointing. Abigail has no internal life and develops no relationships. Not with her grandfather, not with Margaret, not with Margaret’s children, not with Nature. Her mother, a shadowy figure, abruptly dies off stage. Abigail has a crush on a high school boy, but he never appears. There is no story, only anecdote, no connections, no interest, until Abigail reaches college and both loses her virginity and meets her future husband. (Is it irony, or just planned coincidence, that her own marriage will encounter the same fate as that of her mother?)

However, as the anecdotal approach continues, we sense, between the lines, that her new husband John’s political ambition and his attitude toward Negroes may lead to marital tension. One speculates that the novel’s earlier coverage of family events had interest because they featured only the highlights of those events, and, as related by Abigail, were given a certain perspective. Whereas, the routine of Abigail bearing children, supporting her husband, and running a home, are simply sequential events, and lack any perspective, much less any tension.

Emotion and perspective finally do enter, however, with two deaths. First, that of Grandfather Howland, and then of Margaret. In each case, it is how the family reacts rather than any description of the death or the service to follow. This is particularly true in the case of Margaret, as we anticipate that the South’s attitude toward Negroes may at last become significant.

And finally, the chickens do come home to roost—with two bits of melodrama that really do not fit the tone of the novel. The first concerns the town’s revenge on the dead Howland for having married a Negro woman. And the second is his daughter Abigail’s revenge on the town. Both scenes are well drawn, but one senses the author wanting to conclude her novel with an emotional punch. I even wondered if she had planned those scenes, especially the first, from the beginning. But I decided not, or hoped not, for it would make the rest too calculated.

To sum up, this begins as a beautifully written novel, a beautifully felt novel whose perspective fades when Howland’s daughter, Abigail, takes over as narrator of her own story. Then it becomes a routinely plotted young woman’s life, until the past catches up with the present—a catching up that I think is too arbitrary. And which ends up betraying the hand of the author, who uses an election “scandal” to instigate this tale of retribution.

As I recall, I became aware of Grau following reviews of her previous novel, The House on Coliseum Street, which is about a New Orleans family. I purchased this book as a remainder, but cannot recall whether I did so because it had won the Pulitzer Prize. (I have to believe it won, in part, because of its racial theme. For that committee likes novels that capture a bit of the American scene.)

So reading this work has been a rewarding literary experience, and acquainted me with a truly literate American author. But, like many, I would also label her as a Southern writer, even though she derides that label. One has to, I believe, because she captures so well the Southern culture.

Which was her mission here as a novelist. To portray through one Southern family the complications that arise from whites and Negroes being so tied together, and yet so separate. It is a social contradiction that easily disrupts, as here, the family life of both races. But for me, the author’s mission interferes with her novel’s literary value. Which ends up being driven more by plot, the election scandal and the barn-burning scene, than by character.

Yes, Abigail is a strong character at the end, but in the final scene, with her laughter and her crying, the author seems to lose control over her. Or has Abigail been undone by her own actions? Has she become as vengeful, as corrupted, as the prejudiced townspeople around her?

Reading more Grau would be interesting, but her work is not at the top of my list. (November, 2014)

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