What I’m Reading: American Ghost by Janis Owens

In elementary school, while studying the Civil War one day, I raised my hand in class and said, “My dad says that the reason so many black people have the last name Booker is because we were slave owners.”

Mrs. Rivera shot back, “That’s nothing to be proud of!”

I cried in class that day. I wasn’t bragging – I was just excited to have something to say.

Later in life, I belonged to social clubs that declined membership to blacks and Jews, and I was denied membership to some clubs because of my lack of blueblood credentials.

I’ve long been ashamed of these facts. I don’t talk about them often – who would? – and I never try to defend them. But what’s to defend? They’re facts, not ideologies. For me, it was just life – nothing more than the components of adolescence in New Orleans. I’m not glad such injustice existed, but certainly I recognize now how that way of life shaped my initial perception of different ethnicities, and certain it now shapes the conscious, hyper-vigilant efforts I make to practice tolerance and teach it to my children.

This part of my past stayed on the periphery of my brain as I read the novel American Ghost by my writer sister friend Janis Owens. The book, out this month, is the story of young woman trying to break free of the small-town trappings – racism, fierce loyalty to a way of life – that threaten to shape her into someone she doesn’t want to become.

The story’s main ingredients include such tender pieces of Janis Owens’ life – and of mine – that I can’t imagine how spent she must have felt after finishing each chapter. It’s a difficult thing, to reconcile one’s past with the present – to be proud of a heritage, yet remorseful about the suffering and pain that indelibly stain those roots. Writing this story must have felt like having a historical enema.

The main character, Jolie Hoyt, lives in Hendrix, Florida, a town so small that most people are married to distant cousins. Their bloodlines trace back to Native Americans, Europeans, or Africans, depending on the source doing the family tree. What’s undisputed is this: they are a xenophobic lot, loathe to welcome strangers into the confines of their swampy forest boundaries. The Hoyts, in particular, shun anyone without the dark hair and skin common to their family members. “The Hoyts’ treatment of strangers was both hostile and superior, as the Hoyts were shiftless, but smart, and they knew it,” writes Owens.

So when Jolie falls for Sam Lense, a young Jewish man researching the genealogy of the area’s population, she embarks on an unmarked path in need of a good bulldozing.

But this isn’t really a love story. It’s more a complicated tale of a Southern girl reconciling the secrets of her family’s past with the need to conform to more current understandings of racial and ethnic tolerance. Jolie’s father, Brother Hoyt, a slightly crazy Pentecostal preacher, loves his daughter with every bone in his big old body – he’s a good man – but his determination to tamp down any recognition of past injustice changes Jolie’s way of thinking, and teaches her she can love a person, a place, and even a culture without embracing all that those entities entail. But it’s a lesson she fights to swallow, and that remains unlearned by the people she leaves behind.

Jolie charmed me for that reason. She successfully bridges the gap between where she’s been and where she wants to go – she makes me understand that I can take pride in the ancestral collaborations that created me without miring myself down in those ancient mindsets.

For most of this novel, I felt like I was watching a narrated docudrama about a place – North Florida – that I have come to love. The vividness comes from Owens’ florid, dramatic prose and quirky, homespun characters. Never have I so wanted to sit down at a cramped Sunday dinner table crammed with comfort food than in the midst of this book. Owens’ previous three novels – My Brother Michael, Myra Sims and The Schooling of Claybird Catts – also successfully capture the Florida Cracker way of life with addictive stories and resplendent descriptions. But not until American Ghost has she so successfully conveyed the forceful contention that so many people remain stuck in the past not because of real prejudice, but more due to poverty, ignorance, and a sincere inability to escape the trappings of their upbringings.

I loved Jolie Hoyt, and I loved American Ghost. And I really, really love Janis Owens. She has instilled in me the importance of pouring myself into my words like seasoning into a gumbo. Otherwise, what’s the point? I hope I do her proud.

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