September 26, 2007

All Aunt Hagar’s Children

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I picked this book up because of its title. I was one day out of Rosh Hashanah services and here was a book called All Aunt Hagar’s Children. For those of you who are less than well-versed in biblical stories, here is a brief summary: Abraham’s wife, Sarah, has borne him no children, so Abraham begets a son with her servant, Hagar. When Sarah finally is granted a son by G-d, she orders Abraham to cast Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. They are about to starve when G-d hears her prayers and makes a well for them to drink from. When Abraham is worried about the fate of his sons, G-d assures him that great nations will be born from each.
The idea presented by the title “Aunt Hagar’s Children” is one of people disenfranchised, cast out, and ignored, but who have their own special history, their own unique heritage. The characters of Edward P. Jones’s short story collection fit these descriptors exactly. Set in Washington, D.C., each story gives the history of a different Black family, most with strong ties to the South, both geographically and in the way they think and act.
In the title story, Jones, with a writing style like the love-child of Dashiell Hammett and Zora Neale Hurston, tells of one Vietnam veteran’s search for information about the murder of his Auntie’s son. The tale deftly combines the story of the flight of the protagonist’s mother from the South to D.C. with his terrifying experience of seeing a white woman die. His search leads to an answer both thrilling and disturbing. His investigation into the murder and therefore into the community serves as an ethnography for himself and for the reader, looking at relationships at the city, community, and family level under a microscope.
The story that enthralled me the most in the collection, “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River,” pulls from the rich tradition of folklore and oral histories of the Black community. While in the market to buy groceries for her husband and son, the protagonist runs into the Devil, and only narrowly avoids giving him the key to Heaven. But what the story gives us most importantly is a view of the complex mysticism that the community has inherited; an amalgam of Christianity, African heritage, and great spirituality.
The whole collection is a beautiful mapping of the lives of the Black community in D.C., following the characters literally through the geography of the city and metaphorically through all the important decisions in their lives. The stories provide insight and perspective into choosing schools, integrating religion into a mostly secular life, infidelity, death and the constant presence of the past to paint an amazing, multi-layered picture of a group marginalized and cast out of the city like Hagar in to the desert.