Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Almost a Classic: "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" by Ernest J. Gaines.

The novel was published in the 1970's, I believe. Written as though the information was gathered in the 1960's; the era of the early civil rights movement. It seems like one of the earlier novels of the genre where a very elderly person's monolog is recorded (on tape!). Another is "The Last Confederate Widow Tells All".

A scholar records the memories of a lady who may be as many as 115 years old in the early 1960's. She doesn't know exactly how old she is, since she was born an American Black Slave in about 1850-ish on a Louisiana plantation, deep in the US Cotton Belt. Her father was from another plantation, she has no idea who he is. Her spunky Mother was murdered by an evil overseer (who killed two more slaves before the owner discarded him). Little Jane (then Dicey, her slave name) was orphaned; her owners moved her from the fields to house service, since there was no one to look after her; but like her late Mother, Dicey is too spunky to be a "good" slave, she has an independent spirit, she is beaten.

Near the end of the Civil War, a Yankee captain renames the child Jane and she learns he is from Ohio. After freedom, she and others start walking away from the plantation. Her goal was Ohio, but she never made it; living her entire live through reconstruction, Jim Crow, War years and the early Civil Rights movement on a nearby Louisiana plantation as a hired worker. She tells a heart rending story of love, loss, abuse, dignity and grace.

The novel is low key, understated; from that comes much of its power to emotionally move the reader, in my opinion. The novel seems a pioneering effort of its type; but for today's politically correct attitudes, it would be difficult to suggest the book to young readers, who might be scandalized. Pity.

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