Book Review: Two Wings to Veil My Face
by Leon Forrest
Publication Date: Feb 01, 1984
List Price: $15.95
Format: Hardcover, 296 pages
Imprint: Random House
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann and Pearson PLC
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Book Reviewed by Tony Lindsay
There is genre fiction, and there is literary fiction. Within these two categories are groups; in part, genre fiction consists of mystery, romance, science fiction, chick-lit, street-lit, western, thriller, and the list continues to grow. The components of literary fiction are less in number but just as vast in scope: historical, magical realism, stream of consciousness, speculative, allegory, satire, and pastoral. Writers of literary fiction employ tropes, and literary devices in their work that go beyond the primary metaphors and similes that are common genre fiction.
Magical realism is perhaps the most demanding category of literary fiction; few writers use it successfully. One who has succeeded in being considered a magical realist is Chicago novelist Leon Forrest.
In his work, Two Wings to Veil My Face, Forrest writes the slave history of an African American family. He weaves the story through two protagonists: a grandson Nathaniel Witherspoon and Great-Momma Sweetie Reed, the grandmother. The masterful storytelling begins with the stressful situation of the Witherspoon family viewing the deceased grandfather at a funeral home.
In this section of the text, Forrest displays, through painstaking imagery, the complex relationship between the father-Arthur Witherspoon, the son and grandson-Nathaniel, and a self reliant clairvoyant Great-Momma Sweetie who refuses to attend the grandfather’s, her one hundred and seventeen year old husband, Jericho Witherspoon’s, funeral.
Through the grandparent’s marriage, which starts when Great-Momma Sweetie is fifteen and Jericho Witherspoon is fifty-five, the reader witnesses slavery after the Civil War, the interdependent relationship of post slavery master and slave, the harsh truth of freedom bringing Union Soldiers, and the fragile lives of women of the era. What Forrest does through magical realism… is make unbearable human situations bearable in the pages of Two Wings to Veil My Face. Relationships between the characters in this novel, in actual life, would have mind shattering repercussions. Only a magical realist can have an abused daughter visit an abuser father on his deathbed seeking solace and understanding. Only a magical realist can cause a reader to accept a barren wife of forty years raising a husband’s child from an adulterous affair. Only a magical realist could cause a reader to believe that a slave broke his master’s back for sleeping with his woman, and another slave healed the master and brought him back to life.
What is unacceptable in reality, through Leon Forrest’s literary craft becomes real in Two Wings to Veil My Face - one Leon Forrest’s five novels: There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden (Random House, 1973), The Bloodworth Orphans(Random House, 1977), Two Wings to Veil My Face (Asphodel, 1984), Divine Days (Another Chicago Press, 1992), Meteor in the Madhouse (Northwestern University, 2001) - posthumously.
Like many American novelist Forrest began his writing career as a journalist. He initially began writing as a Public Information Officer for the US Army. Born and raised in Chicago, Forrest attended Hyde Park high school, Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University, and University of Chicago. Much of his fiction references the south side of the city with his created Forest County having strong links to Chicago’s Hyde Park.
A Chicago writer and educator, Forrest taught at North Western University for over twenty-four years, and his fiction continues to be read and critiqued by those who appreciate literary fiction and magical realism.