In the note at the end of The Orphan Mother, author Robert Hicks explains his rationale for penning the tale of a former slave seeking justice for her murdered son.
Hicks, a 65-year-old white man, takes critics head on, acknowledging there will be some questioning of his credentials to write from the point of view of Mariah Reddick. He explains that he wasn’t trying to write and speak for black women as much as he was writing a transformational story about a human being.
He explains that in light of Ferguson, Mo., and the shootings in Charleston, S.C., there could be no better time for his story of redemption and race. The narrative is compelling, but the point of view doesn’t go deep enough into the varied characters who live in and around Franklin, Tenn.
The book is set in the summer of 1867, and Hicks knows the South in its darkest hour — the Civil War. His previous novel, The Widow of the South, was a New York Times bestseller. Hicks was praised for capturing the sorrow and grief of the war through the story of Carrie McGovack, who mourns the soldiers killed in the battle of Franklin, Tenn.
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Author Robert Hicks has written two other Civil War-themed novels, ‘A Separate Country’ and ‘The Widow of the South.’
Reddick’s character was introduced in The Widow of the South as McGovack’s slave. The story takes place during Reconstruction — that window of time after the Civil War and before the codification of Jim Crow segregation.
The end of slavery and the Civil War has left white people and black people in a world where relationships are far from level. McGovack continually urges Reddick to return, and she does visit and help out. But there’s a tension between them as each struggles to find her place in the new order.
The ingredients for a compelling drama are there, but The Orphan Mother falls short. The storyline is plodding and there’s no real drama.
There’s a restlessness and trepidation throughout Franklin as black people begin forging an identity and living as full citizens and white people work to maintain their grip on society and power. But the characters lack emotional depth as they go through life matter-of-factly.
In Mariah, Hicks has created a strong and noble soul, whose comfort with herself allows her to withstand the indignities of racism. Mariah is a midwife, and as such, she has seen many of the people in and around Franklin enter the world.
Her son, Theopolis, is intent on running for Congress. Theopolis plans to announce his candidacy at a town gathering. The contest has also drawn the interest of Republicans who support Reconstruction. The resistance and tension around their presence is so strong and sinister it sparks a violent clash.
However, Theopolis quickly becomes the target. He is savagely beaten by several white men so possessed with violence, Hicks’ narration suggests, that their rage is unstoppable. The attack, which ends with a single gunshot, is random and without explanation.
In October 2014, Robert Hicks introduced Battlefield Bourbon, a small-batch hand-bottled Tennessee bourbon whiskey. He earned the title ‘Whiskey Preservationist’ from the ‘Nashville Tennessean.’
There’s no explanation of the animosity and hatred some whites hold toward blacks. There’s also not a lot of probing into how the black people of Franklin feel now that they are free but, in some cases, still tethered to the white people who formerly owned them.
Mariah’s reaction to Theopolis’ death lacks the passion or devastation of a parent whose only child has been viciously murdered.
Mariah is determined to learn not only who killed Theopolis but why. The story alternates chapters between Mariah and George Tole. Tole, who was born free in New York, has migrated to Tennessee. He has a murky past and a reputation as an assassin. He falls for Mariah, but again there’s no passion.
Mariah’s status as the community’s midwife gives her access and power. Her investigation takes place in the void that lacks a killer or a motive. She goes meticulously through the town demanding and getting answers about the attack that left her son dead.
The story gives readers some idea about the conflicts that marred Reconstruction and fueled Jim Crow, but it falls short of tying America’s racial past to its present.
The Orphan Mother
☆☆☆ (out of five)
- By Robert Hicks
- Grand Central, $26
- Audio: Grand Central, $35; narrated by actress Adenrele Ojo.