Annalaura Welles lives above the animals in a barn, sharing one room with her four small children. Her husband John, was a sharecropper; a person hired to work an area of farm land for the owner of an estate in return for a lump sum of cash, dependant on the size and quality of the crop raised, so the whole family live on the McNaughton estate. Last season John raised an outstanding crop, but now John has disappeared, apparently abandoning the family just before the second season’s planting period. He has stolen Annalaura’s money and taken much of the family’s small food store. Annalaura is desperate to hide the fact that John is gone because if Alexander McNaughton, the owner of the estate, finds out there is no man to pull the crop in he will evict her family from the tenancy. As a black women without a husband, she will also become ‘fair game’ for any white man around (this is 1913, after slavery has been abolished but a long way from any kind of legal equality for black Americans). So, Annalaura struggles to project the idea that John is still around, while covertly dealing with the consequences of his departure and theft.
‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in the third person and relates the separate perspectives of four main characters. The reader is immediately sucked into Annalaura’s desperate attempt to survive in the first chapter, then the narrative follows McNaughton and his wife in the second chapter, before shifting focus again to concentrate on Annalaura’s husband John. The reader learns that he has gone to the city in the hopes of earning enough money to buy his own parcel of land, so that he won’t have to work for a white man any more. At this time, southern, white estate owners blatantly rob their black tenants, under the cover of providing them with essential materials for living and working ‘on tick’. It is understood that the cost of items such as seed to grow the crop and food to eat while they wait for the crop to grow, will come out of the tenants earnings when the crop is sold. By levying this ‘advance’ white estate owners make sure that black tenants never earn enough to invest in their futures and break from a cycle of what is essentially indentured labour. John Welles is an exceptional tenant, who pulled a tobacco crop that made ‘...three thousand dollars, more than twice any other tenant farmer he ever had...’ from an uninspiring mid-forty acreage but after one season working for McNaughton, he understands that he will never earn enough money from share cropping to forge an independent future . So, he robs his wife and leaves his small children to work the land during the crucial planting and harvesting period.
That might seem a harsh judgement. I mean, John Welles has noble aims right? He’s fighting his own battle against oppression. And of course, John himself doesn’t frame leaving his family, quite as I have when he thinks about his actions. John sees leaving his wife behind as a noble endeavour; he will get a city job counting cards at a high rolling establishment in order to put his children through school and return the hero. That is a worthwhile aim and many readers will surely find themselves conflicted as the man (who in Annalaura’s section is described as a reckless, restless, deserting dreamer) is humanised. It is important to note that even though his actions cause his wife serious problems, he is in his turn screwed by an unfair, prejudiced society. Intersectional analysis of history = complicated.
However, the novel is careful to never disregard the first inevitable reading of John’s actions as callous. I feel that it actively endorses the idea that John is both right and wrong by returning to focus on Annalaura’s struggles. Though John’s dreams are portrayed sympathetically in the novel, the way he goes about putting his plan into action is not. I’ve already mentioned that he steals food that Annalaura needs, in order to make his trip. While he is away from his family he takes up with other women. The sacrifices he makes are rarely sacrifices that impact on him, although he has convinced himself that he is as pained by circumstances as Annalaura must be, for example he stays in the city longer than necessary for his own pleasure, which leaves Annalaura open to serious harm but when called on this behaviour he implies that circumstances keep him from his wife and he is suffering by missing his children. If his employer hadn’t physically kept some of his wages back for Annalaura there is every possibility that he’d have kept spending in order to justify why he needed to spend even longer away from home. Meanwhile Annalaura faces starvation and is raped by Alexander McNaughton repeatedly.
Many of these thoughtless actions that readers may find hard to forgive stem from the historical context John exists in, for example he rationalises taking money from the family by claiming sole ownership of it as the man of the house and invoking his grand plans for freeing his family from white control. He also refuses to acknowledge the inevitable realities for a young woman with four children left with little food and no way to earn money, because society tells him that no matter what a woman should always remain faithful. Rape is not a concept he seems to understand in the same way that we would. Howard tries to present John as a balanced character, who has good parts to his character, but is heavily influenced by his times. However, I sometimes felt that the book had perhaps set John Welles up as too unlikeable a character for readers to sympathise with, despite the fact that he has been placed in a tough position by society. Without playing oppression Olympics I’ve got to say it’s hard to feel so sorry for a man whose dreams and aspirations are being denied him by the society he lives in, when he’s a cheating, stealing bastard who does not react as modern readers may hope on coming home to find his wife has been raped, even when we’re aware of how historical context affects his actions.
I feel the same way about how the book portrays Alexander McNaughton, the man who repeatedly rapes Annalaura. Alexander is shown as a man of his time period, claiming the free, black woman that everyone else around him said was his right, but he also has genuine feelings for his child who died and eventually comes to feel he is in love with Annalaura. Again, the bad guys aren’t always one dimensional villains. Alexander McNaughton believes he has a right to Annalaura, because his society reinforced that idea through everyday behaviour and rhetoric, much as John Welles was convinced by society’s rhetoric that it was fine for a married man to sleep around as long as he always came home, but unforgivable for a woman not to ‘fight’ if commanded to sleep with a white man. There are probably tons of things our future generations are going to boggle at that we all find totally acceptable because of our modern rhetorical structures, so we have to try not to judge historical characters in a way that positions our generation as the unquestionable pinnacle of enlightenment.
Still, the wife beating (Welles) and rape (McNaughton) perpetrated by these two men are terrible things, we know that the victims of these actions have been hurt, even if the person doing these things is surrounded by cultural reasoning that allows us to understand they were ordinary human beings rather than exceptional monsters. So, personally I needed to be given more of a reason to empathise with the male characters, in order to circumvent my impulse to judge them as bad people with everything taken on balance. I didn’t get enough sympathetic content, or perhaps the novel didn’t convey the sympathetic content that it did put across quite strongly enough. Either way I found my sympathy and interest in viewing the two men as human beings with their own problems disappeared as the novel progressed. By the end I thought they were both totally off the rails awful and although towards the end of the book both men show positive human qualities (John sets out to kill Alexander, then gives up this quest to keep his children safe from the inevitable lynching that would follow, while Alexander helps Annalaura through a difficult birth when she’s all alone) these events just weren’t enough to counter balance all the time I’d spent watching them be terrible, terrible people towards the female characters. For whatever reason I firmly aligned myself with the women against the men, instead of finding a way to sympathise with everyone. I’m still not ruling out the idea that personal feeling has influenced my reading of a couple of characters who other readers will be able to both sympathise with and hate just a bit, but I have read books that successfully convinced me to feel sympathy and dislike before now, for example ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ contains a character who is abusive, but also seemed separately sympathetic to me.
What I feel the book does really well is to show exactly how hard life could be for women involved with these particular kind of men, by introducing the reader to these two complicated, but ultimately violent male characters, which neither of the two sympathetic female characters can trust. Annalaura is a woman trapped between a rock and a hard place in this book. And McNaughton’s wife Eula Mae lives in a loveless, predictable marriage, which she tolerates by deceiving herself, until her husband begins to fall in love with Annalaura (although, of course he doesn’t fall in love with her, just an idealised version of her that he calls Laura). Both women are given active point of view sections in this book, which allows the reader to really get to know them and understand their lives. I would have liked a lot more from Annalaura after Alexander McNaughton begins to rape her, because I wanted to see her feelings about their relationship revealed. Clearly by the end of the book the time they spend together has become more than rape, but how did she reach that state of mind? I thought that the reader had much more access to Eula Mae’s troubled internal feelings. Hearing her inner thoughts humanised and developing the dull, obedient woman Alexander sees, into a person only the reader knows. Not that Annalaura isn’t taken past the image the men in her life have of her in the sections the reader gets access to their inner thoughts, it’s just that as the character the book begins with and the woman who seems to be the heart of the book, I might have expected the book to give even more space to her perspective.
To finish, just a (longish) note on the book’s writing. I started ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ a while ago and was put off by the immediate clunky exposition of the first paragraph:
‘Annalaura Welles stirred out of her fitful sleep to the certainty of two things. Husband John was gone for good this time, and even with the help of her four young children, she would be unable to bring in the tobacco harvest by the end of August. Though this was coming up the second year she’d sharecropped the McNaughton mid-forty, she still wasn’t used to living in the converted upper reaches of a barn.’
Sure, this paragraph serves a purpose. It gets a lot of necessary information across quickly: who the protagonist is (Annalaura Welles); what her circumstances are (a woman with four children living above a barn); information about her past (troubled marriage with a man who has left before and now seems to have left permanently) and what the major conflict in her life is (the inability to harvest enough tobacco). It introduces points of interest, which is supposed to intrigue the reader into wanting to continue with the story, for example the reader might wonder who are the McNaughton’s and where has John Welles gone.
Unfortunately there is a lot of information contained in this three sentence paragraph, which is a relatively cramped portion of writing space considering all the facts and information the reader is supposed to absorb. The paragraph is overburdened with more background context than it is capable of encompassing comfortably. The reader’s rhythm is disrupted by the author’s decision to overstuff this first paragraph with straight forward info dumps and attempts to naturally link two rather dramatic declarations with a sentence about living in a barn. This paragraph has the effect of making the novel sound like it is blurting out information, hurling it at the reader rather desperately, with no regard for elegance, as if the narrative thinks it needs to hand the reader all the information they could possibly need or they will leave. The effect of reading it is kind of like when you meet a stranger on the bus who tells you their whole life story in a loud voice, without pausing for breath. Book, you are making me uncomfortable!
I know how important the first sentence can be to help readers decide whether they’re going to pick up a book and continue reading it, so if this passage sounds as shouty and desperate to you as it did to me, can I just say please, please persevere. The rest of the writing is not like this at all. There are a couple of other awkward moments of exposition, but nothing on the scale of other books I’ve reviewed here before (naming no names, but you probably know which ones I’m talking about). For the most part ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in an easy to read, solid and inviting style. It’s a good piece of storytelling and I’ve spent so long going on about my problems with the first paragraph so I can explain that the rest of the book is written with much greater naturalness, because I don’t want people to be put off and miss out on this historical novel.
Of course I could just have kept my mouth shut and only talked about all the bits I liked in the novel instead.
And wow, I just called the book ‘good’, which sounds kind of a pathetic word in this world of ‘awesome’ and ‘fantabulousness’. We should rehabilitate the word good…
Shut up brain, over thinking does not help! : P
So, overall a good historical novel, that makes me want to start reading more historical fiction again, because the world within was conjured so well. It’s a book that erases some of the disappointing experiences I’ve had with historical fiction recently, which have irrationally kept me from returning to the genre. And yet, still, not a book that encouraged me to feel sympathetic towards less than sympathetic characters. Zetta Elliot and the author, Francine Thomas Howard discuss John Welles in an interview at Amazon, but I’m curious to know, how does everyone else feel about the men in this book?
Brown Girl Speaks
rhapsody in books