The most recent book by Jane Lazarre, the author of many novels and books of memoir (including Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness; Some Place Quite Unknown; The Mother Knot), is a powerful novel called Inheritance. It is a meditation on race and the racial and ethnic history of the United States. It touches on some of the same time period as in Fast’s Freedom Road (reviewed here by SE) but also has parts set before the American Civil War as well as throughout the twentieth century. Its central, germinal story is what happened to a young white woman named Louisa and a black man named Samuel in the years leading up to the Civil War. Samuel and his mother are enslaved, which means his and Louisa’s love is not only forbidden but fatal if discovered. Louisa, white as she is, is also the sister of a slave and is soon pregnant with a slave. What happens when her pregnancy is discovered, and then the color of the baby, is harrowing and horrible. The rest of the novel circles around and flows out of these terrible events through many generations.
The mutilation-murder of Samuel is narrated carefully and respectfully without any of the pornography of violence that a lot of American writers seem to delight in when they are writing about slavery. Lazarre’s focus is always on transformation as her characters deepen their understanding of race and history. The modern characters experience a complex exploration of their consciousness, especially the women struggling with whiteness and their relationships with people of color. All of the main point of view characters are highly thoughtful and deeply articulate as they explore the layers of their lives and relationships. Among these characters is the teenaged daughter of a white Jewish mother and Black father (and his mother is Italian-American). There is a writer who is descended from Louisa and Samuel; there is an early twentieth century Jewish woman named Hannah who is the great-grandmother of the teenager above. Hannah falls into a passionate though non-physical relationship with a descendent of Samuel, also named Samuel.
The genealogies are complex and the issues of whiteness and Blackness are dealt with in detail by the point-of-view characters themselves, all of whom share a writerly sensibility. The origin story of the nineteenth century white girl with the enslaved child and murdered lover recounts her lonely effort to understand and survive. There are remarkable scenes like the one on Long Island Sound when Hannah, unhappy in her marriage and life, eats an oyster pulled directly from the Sound and offered to her in friendship by the third Samuel–a transgression against the formal and informal race laws of the day, but also against the rabbinical laws. It is an ambitious and powerful book that teases out where we cannot reach across the abysses of race and history– and also where we can.
Note: The novel is available from the small press Hamilton Stone Editions with which MSW has an association.