Reviewing Jubilee by Margaret Walker, a classic piece of historical fiction, is a daunting thing. Walker crafts a story, “inspired by the memories of her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier.” (see source below) The main character is Vyry, a woman born on a Georgia plantation just before the Civil War. Vyry is the daughter of an enslaved woman who caught the eye of the master’s son. He forced her to do his bidding and impregnated her so many times that she died too young.
Naturally, he never acknowledged that Vyry was his daughter, despite her “uncanny” resemblance to his daughter Lillian. That resemblance provides a thread throughout the book as Vyry struggles with the color of her hair and skin. She thinks only of herself as a Black woman rather than multi-racial or passing. Still, sometimes her coloring helps, and other times it makes life harder.
But Vyry pulls strength from the women around her, whether it’s Aunt Sally the cook in the main house or the friends who work tirelessly beside her. As she gets older, the ability to persist becomes entirely her own. And life forces her to access this skill time and again.
Vyry survives the plantation, the soldiers of the Union Army, the Ku Klux Klan, and plain old nasty weather. She experiences love, motherhood, success, and crushing obstacles. The passage of time never lessens her load. Life certainly should not be this hard. Yet, through it all Vyry sings, and Walker includes the poignant words to traditional hymns and spirituals.
Walker’s writing is deeply rooted in the true-life stories of women like her grandmother, like Vyry. And it’s abundantly clear that this book isn’t a flight of imagination. It’s a dark and difficult reality.
History textbooks written by white people often discuss the post-Civil War Reconstruction period as a magical solution to enslaved people’s bondage. When in fact, throwing off the yoke is much more complicated than that. White people made it nearly impossible for Vyry and others like her to survive. And this story is just one way to experience those seemingly unending problems.
Walker created this book as her doctoral dissertation, and it shows her depth of knowledge. It also captivated me, both in content and writing style. Every detail is fleshed out, but the heart of the story is still the people. It’s no wonder that, although it was originally published in 1966, Jubilee has never since been out of print.
As I was researching Jubilee, I came across the literary term neo-slave narrative. It seemed new to me, but it turns out I’ve read a few others over the years. For example, Kindred from Octavia Butler or Beloved by Toni Morrison (who Walker mentored). Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup or the recently published Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston are other examples.
And as a child of the 1960s and 70s, I remember watching Roots when it was first on TV. Turns out that Walker sued Alex Haley for stealing details of Jubilee and using them in his book. Sadly, she lost that suit. Sadder still, this book isn’t in the everyday lexicon of historical fiction the way it should be.
I recommend this as an antidote to Southern historical fiction like Gone with the Wind. This is the side of the story we need to hear, especially as we talk about racial justice and reparations 150 years later.
Pair with Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, a fantastical vision of this time period. Or try one of these books from Ta-Nehisi Coates—The Water Dancer or We Were Eight Years in Power.
Walker biographical source: https://www.jsums.edu/margaretwalkercenter/margaret-walker/