Saturday, April 28, 2012

A look at Lynne Bryant's Alligator Lake

Historical novel readers might be tempted to pass by Lynne Bryant's Alligator Lake because it appears to be contemporary Southern fiction... which it very much is.  But buried not so deeply beneath the modern story is a gripping multigenerational saga that travels back through sixty years of racial tension and violence in a rural Mississippi Delta town.

Bryant doesn't offer pat endings or easy answers... that wouldn't be realistic given the prejudice that's been deeply ingrained in her setting for so long.  At the end - I don't think I'm giving much away here - Avery Pritchett is still debating what's best for her family's future.  Her nine-year-old mixed-race daughter, Celi, still has sickle-cell disease and will suffer its painful effects the rest of her life.  And Avery's society-minded mother, Marion, is just beginning to unlearn her bigoted tendencies and accept that African-Americans have a place within her family - an even closer place than she originally knew.  But some progress has been made, which gives hope for the future.

The story opens in 2000.  Avery, a woman in her late twenties, works as a nurse in Colorado and has done her best to raise Celi on her own.  Ten years earlier, as a pregnant teenager, she had fled Greendale, Mississippi, knowing that her relationship with Aaron Monroe would never be tolerated because of his race. It had already nearly cost him his life.

When her brother announces his engagement and invites her and Celi to be part of his wedding, Avery decides to make the trip home, realizing Celi deserves to know her father but fully aware of the difficult situations they will be facing.

Avery has another reason to return, too: to discover her genetic history.  Since sickle-cell disease must be inherited from both parents, and it mostly affects African-Americans, Avery knows she herself must have black ancestry.

Each of Bryant's narrators has a clear, distinct voice and speaks her thoughts plainly. In the 1940s, Avery's grandmother Willadean becomes good friends with Sally and Henry Johnson, siblings in a black family, and endures name-calling and worse because of it.  Marion, Willadean's daughter, grows up during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, horribly embarrassed by her mother's support of the Freedom Riders and desperate to fit in. A generation later, in 1991, Avery pursues a relationship with Aaron, Sally's handsome grandson, behind her family's back.  

Times may change, but for the residents of Greendale, racial bias is a heritage as familiar as its annual debutante balls - which, like so much else, are kept segregated.  Avery's lengthy stay at her Grandma Will's house on Alligator Lake prompts each of the women to reveal or remember her past.  Their stories unfold at a natural pace, drawing in the experiences of others, as well... and their accounts reveal how Avery's present-day dilemma has its roots in events from long ago. 

Marion's perspective isn't always pleasant - it's difficult to hear her feelings expressed in such an unvarnished manner - but her struggle is palpable and real. She knows she risks losing Avery and Celi if she can't accept them for who they are. Furthermore, the author never forgets the child at the center of the drama.  Celi hasn't been exposed to blatant racism before, and her curiosity turns to puzzlement as she questions her mother about what she experiences.

A complex story told with care, Alligator Lake brings painful issues to the forefront in an eloquent yet direct way.  I had a hard time setting it aside once I started reading; the strong characters, vivid historical details, and gradual revelations of family secrets kept me engrossed until the end.

Alligator Lake was published in April by NAL at $15 US / $16 Can. in trade pb (386pp plus bibliography and a conversation with the author).

3 comments:

  1. Sarah, I am definitely looking forward to reading this. I have always liked multigenerational novels, especially those with family secrets. And multigenerational usually means history to some extent.:)

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  2. Multigenerational novels with family secrets are my favorite type of book - and I've always enjoyed novels about the South, too. This one was a good match for me overall.

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  3. How black women survived the forties and fifties, I will never know.

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