MOSTLY WHITE, UNLESS ALSO BLACK AND NATIVE AMERICAN
I continue to be impressed by the quality of the books published by Torrey House Press. Each one I read seems better than the last, and Alison Hart’s Mostly White is no exception. In fact, I think it even exceeds Torrey House’s very high standards. That said, reading Mostly White turns out to be an excruciating reading experience. The content is almost unbearably painful, but I think the pain is worth it. I came away from the novel with a far better understanding of the sufferings of mixed-race American men and women — not a happy subject, but one well-worth some in-depth exploration.
Mostly White offers a series of vignettes, excerpted scenes from the lives of four generations of women descended from the bear medicine Passamaquoddy and from two black sisters who are healers, too. Each generation wavers between optimism and despair, between love and violence, between individual possibilities and cultural barriers. Sadly, the vignettes tend to be bleak.
When I drafted this review, I soon realized that my linear mind couldn’t do justice to the way Hart’s imagination sets her characters adrift. Setting their lives down chronologically totally detracts from the ways their very existences float in time and space. For example, Mostly White opens with the brutality of a Catholic Indian away school, where rural Maine Indian children have been dragged from their families and forced to reject their native traditions. Emma and Joe impotently resist, until Emma finally runs away. Wandering alone in the woods, she seeks solace in the company of an itinerant Irish moonshiner who sells illegal spirits, a nice-enough fellow afflicted with the “drinking disease.” The drinking disease curses their offspring, too. The layers of alcohol lead to bad choices, or is it that the bad choices lead to layers of alcohol? Whichever, Mostly White is veiled by spirits, both imagined and real.
Each generation suffers from the ills of their parents. Each generation repeats the ills of their parents, especially when choosing men. And using alcohol to blur their misjudgments. Despite the suffering, however, I found this novel quite moving. First of all, Hart draws sympathetic characters, women whose foibles a reader can forgive. Second, Hart parses conflicts in thoughtful ways, especially emphasizing the thoughtlessness that too often accompanies racism. Much of the racism is overt, to be sure, but sometimes the undercurrents are equally damning. Finally, Hart writes extremely well. As I indicated earlier, this review cannot capture the flow of Mostly White, a novel that relies on unfathomable depths and resonant soundings between characters whose actions echo through time. No reader could love the deeds, but all readers can learn from Mostly White’s provocative nature. – Ann Ronald
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Mostly White is Alison Hart’s debut novel.