Recommendation from: Buried in Print
Edward P. Jones’ novel The Known World has been on my radar for a long time, but for the blogging event, Diversiverse, I decided to pick up his second book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. The fourteen stories in this book all revolve around African-Americans living in and around Washington D.C. The first story takes place in 1901 and the last story is set in the early 1930’s, but all the rest of the stories occupy an unspecified era between the end of World War II and maybe the 1980’s.
I live in the Washington D.C. area, but I’ve never lived in the District proper. Even so, the characters in Jones’ stories remind me of some people I know – from those who have been in D.C. for generations to those who started in the South and then headed north to this city.
The first three stories of All Aunt Hagar’s Children didn’t leave strong impressions, though I liked Jones’ writing and there were nuggets in each of those stories that shone. But the fourth story “Old Boys, Old Girls” gelled together in a marvelous way as it follows a murderer named Caeser as he serves his time in Lorton prison and then is released back into the world. Unlike the first three stories, when the ending rolled around it didn’t feel abrupt or vague to me, but instead perfectly timed.
Other favorite stories include:
“A Poor Guatamalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru” – in this story, the main character continually survives tragic natural disasters and freak accidents while her companions perish. The somewhat supernatural flair of this story was nicely done.
“Common Law” – through the eyes of a neighborhood’s children, a woman sees the beginning and end of an abusive relationship.
“Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister” – This is both a sad and sweet story told from the perspective of a grandfather as he and his wife are finally reunited with their grandson who had been lost in the system after his drug-addicted parents abandoned him.
Through the frequent use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Jones manages to give an epic sheen to each story. While the story may take place primarily in the 1970s, references will be made to an ancestor who was a slave, or to older relatives who met danger in the Jim Crow South and then, alternately, there will be references to a character’s future circumstances.
Jones’ depiction of time’s fluidity is displayed most dramatically in the last story, “Tapestry.” In this story, a young woman living in Mississippi is courted by a man visiting from Washington, D.C. It is the early 1930’s. Jones starts the story with an alternative timeline where the young woman – Anne – marries a different suitor and stays in Mississippi to the end of her days. Then Jones brings the reader back to the actual timeline, where Anne marries the visitor and takes a train with him to D.C. She and her new husband get into a quarrel on the trip, and Jones then takes us into Anne’s mind as she vividly imagines returning to her beloved Mississippi hometown – each house she would pass by, each bend in the dirt road she would take to get back to her father’s house. It’s an extraordinary bit of storytelling, and a perfect story to end the collection.
With this collection, Edward P. Jones joins a list of authors that I believe I can depend on for good storytelling. I’m glad the Diversiverse event gave me a push to pick up one of his books. I look forward to reading The Known World, and also his first short story collection, Lost in the City. Apparently All Aunt Hagar’s Children shares some tertiary characters with Lost in the City.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Buried in Print – “for those who want the complicated kind of spinning that one usually associates with novel-length works but in a short story…For those who crave a collection of stories that deliberately seeks to represent a diverse set of African American experiences…”