Straight to the heart

Straight to the heart

Louisiana in the beginning of 20th century US is no place for brave spirits like Arletta Johnson, a black girl who is compelled to escape the land of her birth and seek a life of freedom and dignity as a missionary in Africa.

They may no longer legally be slaves to white men, but even the government is ambiguous about black welfare. Arletta’s mother Mambo notes “how they used to stop us blacks having any schooling all ‘cause they didn’t think we were up to being educated and how now they’re telling us we gotta go.”

National and world politics play out in the backdrop, but life for poor blacks like Arletta remains miserable as ever. As Mambo observes with earthy wisdom, “ain’t no white folk ever share nothing with any of us.” Jobs are hard for blacks to come by, with white people accusing blacks of trying to escape military service, “like we ain’t got no right to be getting on the same as anybody else.” In this world of double standards, Mambo is considered good at cleaning the bank, but without bowing and scraping to white folks, she won’t ever get any proper job. “We ain’t able to go on out there telling folks in this world what we wanna be and what we ain’t wanna be. That ain’t our world honey, and learning is fine, ya done good, that’s for sure, but ain’t no time for dreaming...” The ambition of downtrodden black people is to see their children working in an office instead of “cleaning boots and scrubbing pans for white folks”.

For little Arletta Johnson, life is harsh in the most unimaginable ways. Pappy, her grandfather who loved and guided her, is dead, leaving the child alone in this cruel world. Pappy’s wayward daughter Mambo is young, reckless, and too immature to bother about her own child whom she leaves alone in the shack, in the hackberry woods. Here’s where the old ways rule, the magic and voodoo the black people have brought with them from the old country. Mambo is a practitioner of the old ways, of what some call the devil’s work, which can heal and also cause harm.

White folks do visit Arletta’s world, with their shirt sleeves, liquor stink, and nasty ways. They have more dark in them than even Mambo can hold off, for they sexually abuse little girls like Arletta. Although Arletta tries to tell Mambo of the hell she is going through, Mambo doesn’t seem to care what her old white admirer is doing to her daughter. The novel opens with the understated horror of child sexual abuse combined with poverty. Macleod treats Arletta’s sufferings with the right touch of painful immediacy, without sinking into sentimentality or sensationalism. Both Arletta and Mambo know that there will be terrible consequences if black people like them complain about white men, no matter how evil they are. Mambo commands Arletta to keep quiet or “ya gonna find y’self stretching from the branch of a tree, and me dangling ‘longside ya, and all them white folks thinking they’s having themselves a picnic.”

The author does an amazing job of bringing the world of black people in early 20th century Louisiana to vivid life. Her accuracy and empathy for the characters is even more striking since she herself was born and brought up in remote Scotland, and has no direct link with the culture she portrays so well. This novel would be engaging and illuminating enough as a historical tale. However, Arletta’s journey of regaining her life and dignity takes on even broader and more timeless implications because of the underlying theme of child sexual abuse.

One drawback of this novel is that major characters are either angels or baddies, without enough shades of gray. Arletta wins our admiration for her courage, generosity and resolve. However, she also seems too good to be true. She readily forgives her mother for her past neglect and insensitivity. She reconciles too easily with her mother’s new partner, Quince, and showers her little stepsister with undiluted love. There’s no hint of regret or jealousy for the love and security, which the stepsister enjoys, and which was denied to Arletta.

Pappy hovers in the background as the departed wise and loving grandfather cum guardian angel. Mr MacIntyre and Mr Seymour are archetypal white villains, who ruthlessly prey on innocent little girls for their perverted sexual gratification. They are straw-stuffed effigies who deserve to be burnt, and they don’t have a shred of a saving grace or human quality between them. In contrast, Arletta’s landlady Mrs Archer-Laing, is a benign white do-gooder and champion of black equality.

Some of these one-dimensional characters have implausible turnarounds, which seem more for the sake of conveniently wrapping up the story. Mambo’s metamorphosis from negligent and insensitive mother to a loving champion for Arletta’s cause, is unconvincing. Equally incredible is Quince’s change from a good-for-nothing philanderer to a responsible partner and loving father and stepfather.

That being said, Arletta’s courageous story holds our attention till the end. Her world is brought home to us with memorable descriptions and lifelike dialogues, and the plight of sexually abused young girls is vividly portrayed to move the hardest hearts.

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