‘Orphan Mother’ speaks to timely questions about cultural appropriation

It’s been a big year for slavery narratives, with series like “Roots” and “Underground” on television and films like Sundance Festival favorite “The Birth of a Nation.” The trend is even more obvious in publishing, where stories of escape and survival abound.

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” one of the most buzzed-about books of the moment, hit stores a month early this summer when Oprah Winfrey named it as her first book club selection of 2016. The novel made the longlist for the National Book Award in fiction. Three of the award’s 10 finalists for nonfiction explore the American slave trade and institutional racism.

This sudden interest in human trafficking and antebellum brutality may or may not be good news for Robert Hicks, whose new book considers the challenges faced by former slaves who stayed in the South after emancipation.

The Nashville author and preservationist launched his career with “The Widow of the South,” a popular historical novel based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, a grieving Confederate matriarch who transformed her plantation into a military hospital and cemetery for fallen soldiers.

“The Orphan Mother,” Hicks’ latest, returns to Franklin, Tenn., a couple of years after the Civil War, again testing the resilience of a strong woman in the face of unspeakable violence of loss.

Mariah Reddick grew up a slave in the McGavock mansion. Now, she’s created a new life for herself as an in-demand midwife. She relishes her new-found freedom and the novelty of self-reliance among the shotgun shacks of Blood Bucket, a flourishing black neighborhood, while also worrying that her grown son Theopolis is becoming deluded by his political ambitions.

Her fears are realized in a scene that could be ripped out of current headlines. A political rally on the town square devolves into a bloody clash. Flag-waving freedmen of the Colored League are swarmed and beaten by pistol-packing Conservatives with “hard white faces.” Gunfire rings out from an unseen sniper, leaving Theopolis and a white bystander dead in the dirt.

This senseless murder incites Mariah to launch a covert investigation to find the killer and forces an uneasy reconciliation with the widow McGavok. “They defined themselves by what they were not; they were not friends, they were not mistress and slave. … They were two people washed up together on a farther shore with nothing in common but the air they breathed, and perhaps they even breathed different air.”

Although the novel delivers a handful of eloquent and subtle insights into the struggles of motherhood, relationships and loss, interest in the title character’s plight lags quickly. Mariah’s quest for vengeance doesn’t flesh out an awkward protagonist whose personality can be bewildering.

In the opening chapter, she tells a stranger, “I don’t know nothing about educating and teaching and speeches.” Nor does she believe in spirits, she says.

We see the midwife in action during a “difficult birth,” watching in horror as she bites the umbilical cord to save the baby’s life. But her profound gifts of insight seem to waver in the wind. Common sense fails Mariah (and other characters) during some of the book’s most important scenes.

The novel’s believability gap comes at a time when the “national conversation” on race usually sounds more like a shouting match, especially among writers. Earlier this month, novelist Lionel Shriver ruffled feathers with a polarizing speech on cultural appropriation and the ills of “gotcha hypersensitivity.” If writers aren’t allowed to “step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats,” she reckoned, literature itself may be doomed.

Sensing that a book about a mixed-race former slave written by a middle-aged white guy might raise eyebrows, Hicks takes a pre-emptive strike against the appropriation police in a compelling author’s note. “How can I dare write and speak for a black woman? The answer is that I didn’t. I have tried, once again, to understand a human being, with the same hopes and dreams, the same responses to sorrow and loss, that all humans have, whatever their circumstances.”

Although “The Orphan Mother” stumbles in its portrayal of Mariah and also of its villain, the dastardly Dixon, the novel tends to come alive in chapters that focus on George Tole. A drifter who is new to town, Tole describes himself as “a killer and sometimes a con man, a drunk and washed-up soldier.” Hicks handles the gradual unfolding of Tole’s personality with ease and curiosity — no minor task for a character who passes time carving tiny wooden figures for his ever-changing replica of the town. Trying to understand why a black, ex-Union soldier with no local ties would relocate to rural Tennessee right after the Civil War may require an overextension of disbelief. It turns out, though, that Tole is haunted (like the novel’s other major players) by his own private tragedies. The demons threaten to rally as Mariah grows closer to the truth about who shot her boy.

A memorable exchange between Carrie and Mariah speaks to the greater themes of the novel. “We all carry the dead,” the widow says. “Some of us ignore the ghosts that follow us. Some of us turn and face them, look them in the eye. And when you finally turn around, you’ll realize they’re not here to haunt you.”

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