I'd never heard of J. California Cooper until some of my BookTubing buddies' glowing recommendations for Family, a novel about Always, a slave, and four generations of her kin during the Civil War era.
This book showed itself to be something special right from the start. Near the beginning of the book. Always's mother, Clora, attempts to kill herself and her children to save them from slavery. Alas, she fails, and only she perishes, but she watches over the generations of her family and narrates the novel throughout.
In the beginning it seems that Clora's death is a preferable fate to Always's life as a slave. Always learns from an abusive master to hate but also to capitalize on her cleverness by learning the land, growing her own food to sell on the sly, and becoming integral to her master's family. She also takes drastic steps to preserve her son's livelihood in the antebellum south. Meanwhile, her siblings have gone on to escape slavery by passing for white or finding themselves in otherwise fortuitous circumstances. Sadly, no one comes for her. There is no one to save her but herself, and it takes many, many years for her circumstances to improve.
There's so much to love about this book. J. California Cooper, a playwright, has a way with dialect that sucked me right in. It's not as thick as Zora Neal Hurston's writing, but it's unique and gives a distinguishable voice to the overall narration. I found myself marking passages like mad, and I was continually impressed with the imagery in the book...from the gorgeous passages to the ones that were absolutely painful to read.
The choice to have Clora narrate from beyond seemed like it could be gimmicky in the beginning, but it's a poignant choice, allowing her to follow her bloodline across generations, continents, and circumstances...to mingle with other cultures and in places far beyond slavery's reach.
Pick up Family. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Pub. Date: December 1991