“It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”—James Baldwin,
The Fire Next Time (1963)
White liberals (the majority of editors, writers including myself, and perhaps even readers) like to be the good guys. From journalism to literature, and particularly on screen, we see, again and again, white people doing the right thing: The Help (2009), The Blind Side (2006), Lincoln (2012), Glory (1989). What these stories have in common is the preservation of power in the hands of the white protagonist—and an exultation of that power through benevolent and redemptive deeds. In 1963, in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew, saying of white people, of me: “They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” What much of contemporary storytelling leaves unexamined is the corroded heart of the matter that Baldwin points out: a lack of understanding of the history of that power, where it came from, how it was gotten and how, as a result, it still operates. Exceptionally, in her novels Property and Trespass, Valerie Martin is doing the hard, perhaps impossible work that Baldwin named of trying to understand that history and its legacy today.
Property is part tale of a slave revolt on an 1820s Louisiana plantation and part family portrait. The book opens with its narrator, Manon, mistress of the house, looking through a telescope as her husband plays sadistic games with enslaved teen boys. Whoever loses the game, the master rapes his mother. Manon is horrified by her husband’s behavior and perceives herself as a victim. This sense of her is reinforced by the overall situation in which we find Manon living: sharing a home with her husband, his enslaved mistress Sarah, and their illegitimate, deaf son Walter, who looks exactly like his father. This infidelity is open and public and, as the book progresses, we learn that all the white families Manon knows live in similar circumstances. The white women in the book are infuriated by their husbands’ sexual obsessions with enslaved women, and have no power to stop it.
This sense of victimization is complicated, however, by Manon herself. Again and again, Martin sets up a situations in which Manon perceives herself, sometimes accurately, as powerless, and then follows with a scene in which Manon exercises what power she possesses to hurt Sarah, her husband’s enslaved mistress. The book recounts a succession of men humiliating Manon, first, her husband, then later Joel Borden, a potential suitor, then finally in what she learns of her father’s suicide. In the wake of each humiliation comes a corresponding act of cruelty directed at Sarah.
In one of the most haunting scenes in Property, Manon, in the wake of her mother’s death, when she feels most intensely lost and victimized, sucks the milk from nursing Sarah’s breast, an act of utter cruelty and domination.
How wonderful I felt, how entirely free…. [Sarah] had lifted her chin as far away from me as she could, her mouth was set in a thin, hard line, and her eyes were focused intently on the arm of the settee. She’s afraid to look at me, I thought. And she’s right to be. If she looked at me, I would slap her.
Importantly, Martin does not allow the reader the luxury of pure villainy. She is not without compassion for Manon, and uncomfortably, neither is the reader. This disquieting element of sympathy has the effect of deepening the excavation of the interior dynamics of how the perpetrators too are imprisoned and damaged by the power systems which they think protect them.
At the conclusion of the book, Manon’s husband is dead, and the complex sexual triangle is at an end, Sarah has escaped North with one...