The Orphan Mother: A Novel by Robert Hicks
The Orphan Mother is set in 1867; two years after the end of America’s Civil War and solidly in the reconstruction era. At this point in time, the country, and especially the southern states, were poised on the blade of a knife. The hope of the newly emancipated former slaves warred with the intransigence of their former masters, each seeking to pull the country down a different path. It was a time of possibility and exquisite danger. A time when, theoretically, black men were as free as their white counterparts, but the reality of their status remained mired in the past.
Into this simmering brew Robert Hicks draws Mariah Reddick, former slave, now midwife in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Mariah, world weary and suspicious of the future, nevertheless seeks to build an independent life for herself in the town where she has spent most of her adult life. Mariah’s son, Theopolis, embodies all the hope and promise of this time period. He works as a cobbler, but has aspirations of becoming a politician, and representing his people and their needs in the newly reunited country. We also meet George Tole, former sniper with the Union army, drifting through life after the war, finding it increasingly difficult to live as a regular person after what he has seen and done in battle.
When a riot breaks out at a political rally where Theopolis is giving a speech, Mariah is drawn in against her will into the world of politics and corruption, murder and injustice. Where the hopes and the dreams of black men crash against the wall of white racism.
Robert Hicks writes this era masterfully and lyrically. You can almost smell the dust on the roads, feel the heat on your skin. You can see the angry men “with bricked up faces” who are pushing so hard against change, against any perceived loss of status. In this novel Hicks illustrates the tensions between blacks and whites, between former master and slave. We see how the nature of justice can warp and change, especially when race and/or gender conspire to place you at the bottom of the social strata.
This book, though a work of historical fiction,reverberates in the present day. We find these echoes in Ferguson, Missouri, in Philando Castle and Trayvon Martin, and other victims of racially-motivated violence, in the work of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is a story that deserves to be read. That helps to link the inequities of our past to our present day. Robert Hicks has written a spectacular story, one that seems at once very far away and very, very close.
An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The Orphan Mother will be available on September 13th, 2016.