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55-year-old novel worth the read today

January 17, 2019

In my quest to read all 90 of the Pulitzer Prize winners of fiction, I have almost overlooked the winners from the decade in which I was born.

Naturally, I have read the 1961 winner, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but until this month that was the only one from the 1960s I’d read.

So I’ve made it my new goal to read the remaining eight. There are only nine winners in the 1960s because they didn’t award a Pulitzer for fiction in 1964.

I opted to begin in the middle of the decade with the 1965 winner, “The Keepers of the House” by Shirley Ann Grau. Unintentionally, I chose a very powerful book to kick off my challenge. According to a short article on www.britannica.com, Grau is an “American novelist and short-story writer noted for her examinations of evil and isolation among American Southerners, both black and white.”

I think that is a succinct yet fitting summary of her work as a whole and this novel specifically.

As I read it, I was struck over and over by her renderings of the South. I’ve only visited the true South as a child on two different occasions, so I don’t have any solid opinions of the area to compare to Grau’s, but I could see it in my mind anyway as I read this novel.

Grau is a master at painting pictures with words. I’ve never actually been on a boat traversing a swamp in the deep South, but I felt what it would be like because of how vividly she drew it for me with her words. Once I even cringed as a water moccasin dropped from a low-hanging tree right beside the skiff in the story, and I definitely felt the moist swampiness and marveled at the size and shapes of the cypresses as I travelled through that dense water world.

The title of the book comes from a Bible passage in Ecclesiastes 12:3-5, but the keepers in this novel refer to the line of Howlands who have long inhabited and expanded with new additions a house in what is most certainly rural Alabama. The final “keeper” and narrator is Abigail, a woman who was mostly raised by her grandfather and a black woman named Margaret. Oddly, Abigail marries a man with high political aspirations who runs on a segregationist platform.

The disparity of these two parts of Abigail’s world and the reality of who Margaret really was to her grandfather create a shocking climax to this story. In the end, Abigail is left alone as the final keeper of the Howland house and more.

Why racial tensions exist and the toll they take on people make for many the story, whether it be factual or fictional as “The Keepers of the House” is. I was born during the gestation of the civil rights movement, yet here I am 50 years later still seeing signs of racial discord on a daily basis. It’s disheartening. Everyone in this novel pays a very heavy price indeed, as do all of us when we allow ourselves to be divided.

“The Keepers of the House” is a 55-year-old novel that many today would be wise to read and think about.

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Contact Marshall at tamreader@gmail.com. Next month’s selection is some of “The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.”

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