Book Reviewed by Carol Taylor
Granddaddy is a poignant literary novel, told mostly in a stream of conscious narrative, that traces a family’s emotional journey through their memories of the brutal lynching era in the South.
At the end of his life as a sharecropper, Jeremiah Hunter looks up at the bright Birmingham sky and feels regret. His children are all grown and gone, scattered across the country.
“They all gone now—all my children.
He is alone, beside his own thoughts which, taking their own course, are not his to control.
I raised them all right here…
He no longer feels the difference between sweat, or tears. They trickle down the pathways of his face, in search of the faded denim below. He tugs a handkerchief from the slow-breathing chest of his overalls and smears the wetness from his brow. The skin glistens again, hardened from seasons spent wrestling the earth. His face has been softened by that same struggle—the humble look of a man now as full of memories as he is empty of time.”
Facing his final days, Jeremiah contemplates his daughter Lilly May and twelve-year-old Curtis, the grandson he’s never met. He regrets the memories he didn’t make with them because he lacked the courage to leave the countryside. Sensing her father is coming to the end of his days, Lilly sends Curtis south from Minnesota to Alabama to meet his grandfather, for what may be Jeremiah’s last summer. As Curtis connects to his granddaddy, Lilly and her husband Howard’s marriage deteriorates.
The narrative flits and skips back and forth in Jeremiah, Lilly, and Howard’s memories, to a Birmingham where daily lynchings plagued the area and the stench of the burning black bodies permeated the air. These scenes, with their detailed descriptions of burnt, bloody and mangled black men tortured then left to die during lynching parties, were harrowing, distressing and often hard to read.
Years before Curtis was born, Lilly and Howard fled up North but didn’t escape the racism and brutality that plagued them in the South. Even though white men sometimes actually smiled at Howard and called him “Mr. Adams” or “Sir” he knew, from years of living there and working as a janitor that “The North wasn’t that far from the South when all was said and done. They just had a different way of doing things up here, a different way of makin’ sure a Negro couldn’t look ‘em in the eye, even if he did.”
When Lilly goes to pick up Curtis, she embarks on her own journey back to her childhood. She recalls, as a young girl, counting down the hours when her father would return home from town. When he would walk safely through the door. “Each time was a small but incalculable blessing, feeling she could breathe again.” That day he didn’t end up like her friend Immanuel, who when he disappeared she was told “the white folks got him.” She later found out that meant he’d been lynched. As the narrative slides back and forth from past to present, Jeremiah, Howard, and Lilly remember the moments that shaped them and their world. Each is irrevocably broken in their own way as they try to come to grips with the hurt and pain of their past.
Knowing Granddaddy’s house only from a faded old photo, city boy Curtis, at first doesn’t know how to connect with the South, a place he has never been and doesn’t fully understand, or to Jeremiah. “His granddad was a man of few words and more of a man in the few words that he chose, since he had a way of turning those few into more than words could say.”
As Curtis spends the summer with Granddaddy, shooting, talking, and learning about Jeremiah’s life, he grows emotionally and connects with him and the countryside his grandfather loves so much. Curtis leaves a different person than he arrived and as he is marking the calendar on day 296 to return to Granddaddy’s house for the following summer, the ink in the marker runs out. That’s when Lilly gets the phone call that Granddaddy has died.
Although moving, emotive, and lyrical, at times I wished for more dialogue and a more direct narrative. I was lost in the memories, unsure if it was the past or the present. And the despair and sadness felt by blacks, and the hate and incomprehensible evil shown toward them during that time in the South, was so unrelenting that it filled me with an emotion I can’t even describe. But perhaps this is an accurate depiction of life for blacks at that time in the Jim Crow south.
That I didn’t like this book, is not because of the writing, the characters or even the story, but because of how sad remembering that dark time in our history made me, and how we, as a country and a people, never fully recovered from it. But perhaps that is the point. If your heart can take it, I recommend Granddaddy. Its luminous moments of prose and imagery are both heartbreaking and transportive. This story will stay with you long after you close the book.