Thursday, March 21, 2013

Take One Candle, Light a Room

Many years ago now, I read a book call Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, by Susan Straight.  It's the story of a black woman living in poverty, doing whatever she can to raise her son in  violent neighborhood.  It is richly detailed, with an emotional honesty and depth of experience that you really are transported into the character's life.  When I finished the book, I was almost stunned to find that Susan Straight was a middle-class, middle aged white woman.  Not that it isn't possible for authors to write convincingly from a cross-racial viewpoint, but the book was so raw and the emotions felt so authentic I could only imagine someone who had been in similar circumstances to be able to articulate the story so well. When I delved a little more deeply, however, I realized that living in the racially and socioeconimcally diverse city of Riverside, California, and working in the struggling public schools there, gave her an insight that truly comes to life when paired with her remarkable facility with language.

So I was very pleased to get Take One Candle, Light a Room as a gift earlier this year.  It had been years since I had read one of Straight's books, and I was looking forward to what she could bring to her new subject-mainly, the inner struggle that comes from being of mixed-race, and how the legacy of slavery can affect the descendants of slaves even today.  The narrator of the book is Fantine Antoine, daughter/sister/niece/aunt of a mixed-race family originally from the Louisiana coast, now living in Rio Seco, California.  Fantine, who goes by FX in her professional life, is a travel writer-a profession which forces her to disappoint her mother on a daily basis, since it means that she has deserted the family compound for L.A. Fantine, just back from a trip to Switzerland, returns home to find her nephew on her doorstep-with two of his gang-banger friends.  Victor is a gentle, intelligent, creative type, scarred emotionally by his mother's murder five years before.  Tired from her travels, Fantine sends him away, promising to spend time with him the following weekend.  But when he and his friends are involved in a shooting that leads to the death of a rival gang member, Fantine embarks on a very different kind of trip, cross country and back through time and history to find him and bring him home.

Straight does a beautiful job of getting into the head of Fantine and her family members.  The family's history is firmly rooted in racial violence-her grandparents left Louisiana because of a white man who was preying on the young black girls in the parish.  Since coming to California, the family has stayed mostly in the small town where they settled, running an orchard and keeping to themselves.  Fantine was raised on the stories of the women who came before her, the slaves and former slaves who struggled to survive so their children and grandchildren could have a better life than the one they had.  Straight explores issues of revenge, belonging, guilt, redemption, and the invisible threads that keep us connected to our past, even as we try to run away from it.  Fantine's journey takes her back to Lousisana, and Straight uses Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop for the final climactic scenes of the book.  It's a story of second chances, for another shot at doing the right thing, and about the resilience of a people who refuse to give in to the titanic forces trying to tear them apart.

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