I listened to this years ago – one of my first Audio books – and I was amazed. So I was more than willing to read it again when it came up as a selection in the Modern Fiction reading group. It really is a modern classic.
The Keepers of the House
by Shirley Ann Grau
1964 / 320 pages
read by Anna Fields 9h 17m
rating: 9 / classic US
Abigail Howland has lived in her grandfather’s rural Alabama house for a long time. Her mother was born and raised there and returned after a time in England. And her grandfather lived there – in fact, there were a couple generations of Howlands who lived there prior to that. It’s an old, rich, well-established family.
But there are other children who are Abigail’s half-aunts and uncles. Children of her grandfather and his “Freejack” long term housekeeper, Margaret. The town knows but nobody talks about it.
The tale is that of 4th generation William Howland, his granddaughter, Abigail, and Margaret, William’s housekeeper and the mother of several of his children, as they live through the Civil War period to the 1960s and days of Civil Rights. Each of these characters has chapters devoted to their point of view.
It seems slow at times but it builds to a somewhat tricky ending with the interracial characters in a land of bigotry. But the major characters are so carefully well drawn and the ambiance of the setting so delicate it’s totally worth the wait, the build-up.
This was written in 1964 – the same era as To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee/1960 ) but some time after some of Faulkner’s best works where race is a motif and it shows. It took awhile for me to see that the “honesty” the reviews talk about is there – especially for the era – who was racist – really racist? And it gets spectacularly racist by today’s standards.
What about this book gave it the Pulitzer Prize? It is very nicely written and definitely an American story – still (spoiler) – don’t look for a happy ending.
“Freejack” was the term given to black men who were granted their freedom upon discharge from the the 1812-1815 War against the British. Their freedom was given as compensation for having served the United States under the command of Andrew Jackson. Large groups of freejacks tended to keep to themselves, resulting in the founding of the area known as New Church.