There is an interesting part of history that goes unnoticed. The treatment of blacks in the South during the time of slavery plays an intricate part of America’s history, which gets frequently overlooked. The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau sheds light on this time period, following a family, living in rural Alabama in the 1960’s. Grau explains this family: “All in all the Howland’s thrived. They farmed and hunted; they made whiskey and rum and took it to market down the Providence River to Mobile (Grau 12). The story follows three generations of the Howland family living in a community that ultimately turns on them. Grau takes inspiration from the time period along with having multiple themes to craft an interesting and impactful Pulitzer Prize novel. The Howland’s were a family that lived in the same area for many years. William Howland, the fifth, lost his wife, leaving him to take care of his young daughter Abigail and a son William who dies shortly after.
Abigail then marries a man who leaves her with her own daughter Abigail. William’s daughter dies and leaves him with a granddaughter to take care of. Soon after, William hires an African American, Margaret, woman as a housekeeper. Abigail talks of the lasting affects William and Margaret left on her: “I am caught and tangled around by their doings. It is as if their lives left a weaving of indivisible threads in the air of this house, of this town, of this county. And I stumbled and fell into them” (Grau 6). Around town, she became know as his mistress and mother of his other children. In secret, they marry for the children’s sake. Later, after the children grew up, they were sent up north so they could live as normal white citizens. Abigail later marries a man named John Tolliver who aligns with the Klu Klux Klan during his run for governor. Robert, the eldest of the Howland brothers was outraged by this and released an article hurting Tolliver’s campaign.
Tolliver and Abigail end their marriage near after. Back where the Howland’s live, the town is still outraged about the marriage between William Howland and the African American homemaker Margaret. Even though both of them had died, the town gathered and lit the barn on fire and killed many of their livestock. Grau writes, “The Howland they wanted was dead. His Negro wife was dead. Their children disappeared. And so they were wrecking the only thing that was left of him, of them. First the barn and then the house” (Grau 285). The novel comes full circle when Abigail gets revenge on the town’s people and ruins the entire local economy along with the town. It seems as though Shirley Ann Grau took inspiration from the history of this time period along with what it may have been like growing up at that time in that place to set a scene of exactly what this time period may have looked and felt like.
Showing what the Howland family went through, along with the way they were treated set a scene for not only a family struggle but a national struggle as well. The way she describes the scenery, puts you there in at time. Grau writes, “November evenings are quiet and still and dry. The frost-stripped trees and the bleached grasses glisten and shine in the small light (Grau 1). As well as the scenery, Grau uses her deep characters in the story to highlight how people were affect by this issue. Abigail is the main character narrating this story. Grau tells the happenings of this time through her eyes as well as through the actions of William Howland, Margaret, John Tolliver and Robert Howland. Each of these characters makes an impact on this story, as well as the main character Abigail.
For example, Abigail’s husband John Tolliver shapes her character into a tough skinned woman. He treats her unfairly as a wife but she learns from that and takes it with her. Grau writes, “I knew what John meant: I was the perfect wife for a candidate. He had chosen and trained me well (Grau 257). This marriage helps toughen up Abigail for the future as she fights for her family. There are two main themes taken from this novel: racism and family. Racism is a clear theme throughout this novel given the time period and scenario that takes place with a secret African American maid, wife and mother. Racism is shown through the scenario when Tolliver bashes blacks during his campaign for governor. Tolliver talks about African Americans in vulgar and horrible ways.
When talking about William and Margaret’s children he says, “He couldn’t let his children be bastards, even if their mother was a Negro” (Grau 271). This is just one example of the way African Americans are talked about at this time. Also, the area where the Howland’s live, do not take the news of William marrying Margaret lightly just because she is African American. Family is another theme portrayed in this novel. The Howland’s go through trials and tribulations that test their family as a whole.
For example, like stated before, the town completely turns on the Howland’s when they find that William and Margaret had married. Abigail takes a stand for her family and fights back. She stands up for her family and the house they have lived in for so many years. Grau shows just how much Abigail cares for her family and home. She writes, “Child, I thought you don’t even know, its possible to love a house and land that much (Grau 274). These two themes play a role in teaching readers about the time period and the struggles it caused.
The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau sheds light on an issue sometimes forgotten about in society today: the treatment of African Americans in the 1960’s. Using things like history from this time and family themes, Grau establishes that this issue was serious and did exist. Abigail Howland ultimately stands up for what she believes in and protects her family but also puts a small dent in this civil rights movement. As her journey comes to an end she says, “I stood on that cold windy grass and saw what I had done. I saw that it wasn’t bravery or hate. It was, like my grandfather said, necessity. And that’s pretty poor comfort but at times its all you’ve got” (Grau 290). Abigail’s narration of her family’s story along with the use of strong and deep characters, shape for a wonderful Pulitzer Prize novel.
Courtney from Study Moose
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