Books
1:30 pm
Mon February 15, 2010

"Bound South" by Susan Rebecca White

This novel has that most valuable of assets, a great first chapter. It is fall, 1998, in Atlanta. Louise Parker, 47, is going to pick up her mother-in-law, Nanny Rose, to drive her to their maid's funeral. Sandy was 65, an African-American, and a perfect servant for 33 years.

When a reviewer is evaluating a novel by an old pro, a Philip Roth, say, there is anticipation but little anxiety. Probably it will be terrific, but if it's not, there's no problem about saying so. A writer like Roth is a veteran and should be taken to task if he publishes second-rate fiction.

A first novel is another story. We know how much effort and self is invested. The novelist may have worked on it for years and it would be evil to be gratuitously cruel. Nevertheless, most first novels are nothing special.

What a relief then to read "Bound South" by Susan Rebecca White. Anxiety, potential guilt dispelled.

This novel has that most valuable of assets, a great first chapter.

It is fall, 1998, in Atlanta. Louise Parker, 47, is going to pick up her mother-in-law, Nanny Rose, to drive her to their maid's funeral. Sandy was 65, an African-American, and a perfect servant for 33 years.

The relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is strained, as is often the case--one thinks of "New Dresses" by Mary Ward Brown--even though in this case both are born and bred Atlantans. When Louise arrives punctually at Nanny Rose's house, she is "waiting outside in the ninety-degree heat. . . . Nanny Rose has a way of making you feel that you are always late. You wouldn't think such a little woman could be so intimidating." Louise continues, "I drive up next to her, stop the car, lean over the passenger seat, and push her door open from the inside. She stands stiffly beside it." It takes Louise and the reader a second to get it.

They then drive to a black neighborhood, get frighteningly lost and, finally, find the church. Nanny Rose tells Louise that she will really miss Sandy. She says: "She used to help me in and out of the bath; she used to help me into my clothes. Why, it got so I'd even let her help me into my girdle!"

The pair approach and in the casket there lies "a petite black man, wearing a dark brown suit," holding the Bible Nanny Rose had given Sandy as a birthday present. What is that black man doing with Sandy's Bible ? That black man IS Sandy. Nanny Rose's final conscious words are "'That black man helped me into my girdle!' . . . [as she] rolls her eyes toward heaven, and faints to the floor."

No novel short of an outright farce can continue in that vein for long, and "Bound South" is mainly the story of Louise, her very straight lawyer husband, John Henry, and their two children, Caroline and Charles, both of whom attend the posh Coventry Christian Academy.

Caroline is a mediocre student but a talented actress and is headed for Juilliard to study drama when she is abruptly expelled from Coventry after a group taking a guided recruiting tour of the school discovers her in the green room in flagrante delicto with Frederick Staunton, her Coventry drama teacher.

Caroline's academic career is over and she heads to San Francisco.

Charles, the younger child, is a sensitive, unhappy soul who is not athletic and doesn't fit in. The reader is pretty sure early on that John Henry and Louise will have some more opportunities to practice flexibility and adjusting to unexpected changes.

As if their own two children didn't provide enough excitement and complication, the Parkers' white maid, Faye, has a troubled daughter, Missy, who, little by little, becomes like a daughter to Louise.

This extended family saga extends over a 10-year period. Louise engages with her artistic side. Caroline loves, loses, loves, wins. Charles comes to terms with who he is. John Henry develops into a better person than we expected. Missy, an earnest young Christian who actually becomes, no joke, a virgin mother, searches for her biological father. The two families, it turns out, are more connected than anyone dreamed of. It's all a kind of a soap opera but thoroughly enjoyable and a very promising first novel.

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