Sons and Heirs: Lorene Cary’s Latest
August 7, 2011
Recently I finished Lorene Cary’s latest novel, If Sons, Then Heirs, another fine and highly readable book from one of Philadelphia’s most respected authors. Lorene is well known locally for her community work with the Art Sanctuary, but as a reader I’m happy to see she’s not neglecting her own writing.
Featuring several generations of a single family, If Sons, Then Heirs combines a fairly simple present-day story with an intricate and complex revelation of the family’s past. The genealogical tree that appears early in the book should help readers keep track of the many characters who roam the pages. Unfortunately, I read the Nook e-book version, on which the chart is illegible, and so I was constantly struggling to remember, for instance, how Binkie is related to Lil Tootchie. (Great names throughout!)
Roughly, the present-day plot goes like this: Rayne, an African American man who runs a construction business in Philadelphia, stands to inherit the old farm on which his great-grandmother, Selma, is living in South Carolina. Yet because of racist property laws and contracts, the ownership of the land is in question. As Rayne begins to tackle this issue, he is contacted by his mother, Jewell, who abandoned him to Selma’s care decades ago. Rayne also faces a decisive point in his relationship with his girlfriend, whose son has just begun to call him “Dad.” That’s four generations right there—or five, if you count the one skipped between Jewell and Selma—and the author will add cousins, aunts, uncles, stepfathers, and more to the troop.
At first, Rayne isn’t particularly interested in digging up his family’s history, but inevitably, in confronting the land issues, he must uncover a good deal more than he ever wanted to know. Having tried my own hand at stories that dredge up the past, I was intrigued with the tone of this book, which strikes me as an interesting mix.
From the start, we know from all the elements that form a tone—the style, the positive resolution of small incidents, the degree of humor and warmth, the preponderance of good people, etc.—that nothing really terrible will happen to the main characters in the present-day story. I refuse to label that comment with a “spoiler alert” because the comfortable tone is evident from the first chapter. Yes, Selma is extremely old and doddering, and Jewell’s husband is sick with cancer. Perhaps one or both of these fine folks will die in the course of the novel—I won’t reveal that; see, I’m being good!—but, even so, that will not make a tragedy. We know that Rayne and Jewell will survive and most likely continue the relationship they have newly established.
The past is another matter. When Rayne descends into the dark cellar of this family’s history, he unearths not skeletons so much as bloody remains—the still-dripping evidence of racial violence. No humor and warmth there, just ugliness and calamity, and the author presents them in gory detail:
He raises the tire iron in his hand and the others stand clear of him, because he is swinging wild, hitting the hood, the car door, hitting [the victim’s] legs, shattering the windows, and grabbing through the window at the great, flailing, dangerous, bloodied body.… [He] cuts up his own arm. It bleeds onto the car door and down his side. He lets out war yells like an Indian.
What’s the effect of such a tragic, violent tale wrapped inside a warm and slightly sentimental one? Though I was interested in the gradual revelations of the past, I can’t say I felt suspense, because the outcome—the contemporary lives of the main characters—is already known. In fact, though the villains of the past have present-day descendants, with whom Rayne has to deal to resolve the land issue, Cary treats that story line summarily. Ultimately the past becomes a vivid, personalized history lesson more than a tension-filled story.
The lack of suspense hardly matters, however. Throughout, the characters are the strength of this work. They are big, passionate people struggling to do the right thing. Bringing the scattered relatives back together and understanding what happened to drive them apart—these are the keys to the family’s redemption, and that theme is what Cary wants us to take away from the novel. I’m taking it, and I won’t soon forget Rayne and Jewell and Selma. Another good read from Lorene Cary.