Shirley Ann Grau
Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House is a stunning masterpiece of epic proportions. Winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, the novel is a scathing indictment of racism and its damaging impact. It chronicles several generations of the Howland family in a rural Alabama community. The narrative begins in the early 1800s with the first Howland. His descendants gradually acquire more and more land in the county, becoming the biggest landowners. The narrative culminates with Abigail Howland in the 1960s. Grau weaves an intricate fabric with care and precision, gradually connecting disparate threads of time, place, and people until she draws us into its stunning conclusion.
The story is told in the voice of Abigail Howland, the granddaughter of the last William Howland. Abigail provides the backstory of her ancestors, going back a few generations; leads into her wealthy grandfather with whom she spent her formative years after her mother’s illness and death; and then takes us to her own marriage, the birth of her children, and her return to the Howland estate.
The narrative takes an unexpected turn when the widowed William Howland invites a young Negro name Margaret to be his housekeeper. He fathers five children with her, only three of whom survive. This was a time when interracial marriage was still considered a crime in the South. As long as Howland didn’t formalize his relationship with his mistress, the community looked the other way. But under the veneer of a supportive extended family and a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else and where weddings and funerals are community-wide affairs, there lurks the insidious head of racism. Shortly after his death when Howland’s actual marriage to Margaret is exposed, all hell breaks loose, and Abigail is forced to defend her home against her white neighbors who try to set it on fire.
Grau has woven an intricate story with memorable characters in an authentic setting. Through her use of vivid sensory details, she immerses us in the small Alabama community with its swamps and woodlands; its snakes and alligators; its seasonal fluctuations; its farming and livestock; its sights, sounds, and smells; its racial prejudice; and its politics. She introduces us to a host of characters, depicting them as unique individuals with their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.
Particularly impressive is Grau’s ability to capture the dialect, subtleties, and nuances in speech of each of her characters, especially William Howland and Margaret. Although Howland is a man of few words, he emerges as an authentic, fully-fleshed out individual who casts his expansive shadow over the community even after his death. And through her sparse but astute dialogue, Margaret emerges as a strong, fiercely determined, intelligent, and resilient woman. The characters come alive on the page. Some have imbibed the bigotry of the times and the place; others try to navigate their bi-racial relationships and bi-racial identities the best way they know how in an environment that is hostile to both.
This is a complex novel with complex characters. Grau eloquently evokes the landscape, atmosphere, and inhabitants of a rural Southern town. She builds her story with skill, adding layer upon layer as she moves us forward in time. Through her characters, she illustrates how racism and bigotry influence the difficult choices we make in our lives and the choices we make for our children. She illustrates how a community that has known you all your life can turn against you because of its intolerance. And through the character of Abigail, she illustrates how a young girl, sheltered from the harsh realities of life, grows into an empowered female, fiercely determined to confront racial prejudice and to defend her family’s legacy. By the end of the novel, Abigail Howland has earned her title as the keeper of the house.
A powerful story told with eloquence, passion, and heart. Highly recommended.