"The Keepers of the House" By Shirley Ann Grau
“The Keepers of the House”
Author: Shirley Ann Grau
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 309 pp.
Price: $16.00 (Paper)
This year, 2016, marks the 100th year of the Pulitzer Prize.
For the first 31 years only novels were eligible for the fiction prize. Then the category was expanded to include short story collections.
Eleven times, the prize was not rewarded. Of the 89 given, Southern writers, depending on how you feel about Texas and Florida, have taken the prize at least 23 times. Many of these names are perfectly familiar: recently the prize was taken by Marilynne Robinson, Robert Olen Butler, Alice Walker, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford. A generation back included Faulkner, Welty, Styron, Margaret Mitchell, Ellen Glasgow, Robert Penn Warren, Peter Taylor, James Agee, Katherine Ann Porter, and others.
Some winners did not become household names: in 1934 Caroline Miller of Georgia won with “Lamb in His Bosom.” It is astonishing to me that even a Pulitzer Prize winner can be utterly forgotten.
The fiction prize has gone to an Alabamian three times; most famously, the 1961 Pulitzer was awarded to Harper Lee. The other two winners are T.S. Stribling for “The Store” in 1935 and Shirley Ann Grau for “The Keepers of the House,” 1965.
In keeping with the centennial I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the two other Alabama winners. (Not “Mockingbird”; enough has been said there.)
I am very glad I did. “The Keepers of the House,” which recently passed the 50-year mark, is brilliant, powerful, stunning. The committee should have given Ms. Grau two Pulitzers.
Grau, raised mostly in Montgomery, set “Keepers” perhaps 50 miles outside, although the state is not named and the little town outside Montgomery becomes Madison City.
The story is told by Abigail Howland. Abigail is on the porch of the Howland place remembering recent events from the 1950s and some from her childhood in the ’30s. The past is powerfully present in Southern culture, and although most of the characters are dead, they are not exactly gone either; there are ghosts in this house.
The family narrative began when her grandfather’s grandfather settled some land given for his service with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. That Howland worked, farmed, hunted, and, over time, in spite of the Civil War, extended his holdings and prospered. The house itself was added to, wings and galleries, as needed. There would eventually be 22 bedrooms.
Two generations later Abigail’s grandfather William married in Atlanta and brought his wife home. That wife, Lorena, died, leaving a daughter, Abigail’s mother.
William as a widower was not happy or unhappy: self-contained, but social, not a hermit, went to church, played the mandolin at parties and had a mind of his own. He ignored local disapproval of his subscription to the “New York Tribune” even though the postmaster himself told him: “William, I am plain afraid you have lost your mind.”
Lost in the woods, returning from an expedition to locate a still on his land, William met Margaret, an 18-year-old Negro who had some Indian blood, a white father, and black skin. Margaret was “tall, very tall” with large brown eyes. Abigail says of that meeting: “That was the way it began….She lived with him the rest of her life, the next thirty years….”
William hired Margaret as a housekeeper, but soon these two powerful spirits joined. Their relationship was, as one would expect, the subject of gossip, but when, much later, the true, deep nature of their relationship became known, it set in motion a tragedy of classical proportions.
William and Margaret had children, two girls and a boy, Robert, Nina and Christine—fair-skinned, red-haired children. While still little, they attended the school for colored children.
“In the South, most people could tell Robert was a negro. In the North, he would have been white.” Southerners, Abigail wryly tells us, know what to look for in the shape of the eyes, eyelids, the color of fingernails. “You had to look close, yes. But Southern women do. It was a thing they prided themselves on, this ability to tell Negro blood.” “It’s a Southern talent, you might say.”
As they grew older they were sent north, to Vermont and Ohio, to boarding school, never to return. Margaret endured the loss, determined that her children would have room to grow, to live full lives.
Our narrator, Abigail, whose mother died young, grew up in her grandfather’s house, with Margaret and the children, who are of course her half- brother and sisters. Abigail describes the situation: “Her face was black and ours were white, but we were together anyhow. Her life and his. And ours.”
Abigail, armed with a new blue-and-white Ford convertible and a mink stole, goes to the state university, where she is a typical coed. She seems utterly conventional, marrying a lawyer who runs for governor on a segregationist platform—to him “it’s part of the game”—but she shows herself to be made of the same steel as her grandfather. When the crisis and the violence arrive, as we know it will, and the outraged townspeople come to the Howland place like medieval peasants with their torches and pitchforks, she will face them down, shotgun in hand, fight them, prevail and have her extraordinary revenge.
Beautifully written, “The Keepers of the House” is culturally insightful, and the characters are alive , mature adults. Although it is as “literary” as “King Lear,” it is a true page-turner. “Keepers” was not required reading in middle schools and will never be mistaken by anyone for children’s literature; “Keepers” is for grown-ups.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.