My mom listened to the audiobook of this book by Margaret Walker last year and raved about how good it was, which prompted me to get the audiobook from my library earlier this year.
It’s so good!
It’s the story of a woman, named Vyry, who’s based on Walker’s great-grandmother. She was born a slave on a Southern plantation not long before the Civil War. Her mother was a favorite of her master and there was never any question that she was his son, which, of course, infuriated the mistress (whom they called “Big Missus”). Vyry’s mother died when Vyry was very young, so she’s been raised by the plantation’s cook, Aunt Sally.
Vyry grows up playing with her half sister (Little Missus), until she’s old enough to be put to work, at which point she’s sent to the Big House. But one little mistake and Big Missus ties her up and locks her in a closet until the master comes home and frees her. After that, everyone figures it’s best to keep her away from Big Missus, so she goes back to live with Aunt Sally and learns everything she knows about cooking (and singing). When Aunt Sally is sold off, Vyry takes over cooking for the whole plantation.
Vyry marries Randall Ware, a free, literate black man who works for himself as a blacksmith. He tries to buy Vyry’s freedom, but her master refuses to sell her. He promises to free her in his will, but after he falls ill and dies, it’s up to Big Missus to carry out the will and everyone knows she’ll never free Vyry so she just keeps working in the kitchen and has a couple kids by Randall.
Then the Civil War comes and Randall tries to get Vyry to run away with him, but she won’t leave without her children, and running with two young children is too dangerous. They’re caught before they can meet up with Randall and Vyry is taken back and flogged. Randall goes on to fight for the Union, promising to come back for them after the war.
Lots of slaves run off to join the Union army during the war until there’s almost no one left. One joins the Union and comes back for his sweetheart, telling Vyry that he saw Randall, who was on Death’s doorstep when he last saw him and that there’s no way Randall could have lasted the night. He offers to take Vyry and her kids up North with him, but she refuses, choosing to wait in case Randall managed to survive and fulfill his promise of coming back for her.
Meanwhile, another man, Innis Brown, has been sweet talking Vyry and trying to get her to marry him. He’s good to her and her kids and protects them during the chaotic first days of Reconstruction when soldiers are still running around raping and pillaging. Vyry insists on waiting for Randall, at least until the new year. When it comes and there’s still no sign of him, she finally agrees to marry Innis. So they pack up all their stuff and head out to try to make it on their own, which is as difficult as you might think for a black family in the South during Reconstruction.
Unfortunately, Randall wasn’t dead. He recovered from his illness and came back for her, as promised, only to find out that he was too late. Having no idea where they could have gone, he goes back to working as a blacksmith, but is eventually forced to sell his business for much less than it’s worth to some angry white guys.
He finally manages to find Vyry and the kids by accident, several years later. It’s an emotional reunion and Vyry is upset to learn that she’s accidentally become a bigamist. There’s still love between them, but he recognizes that she’s moved on and has a new life with a new family now. He does take his son with him because he can afford to send him to school and train him to take over the family business. He promises to come back for his daughter when she’s older, but she insists she needs to stay and take care of her mom.
It’s a wonderful book with great, well-rounded characters and beautifully written prose. The narrator is fabulous, too, so I definitely recommend the audiobook.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else you picked up on a whim that turned out to be amazing?