Even more so than most cities, Washington, D.C., is a place where different levels of society seem to exist in wholly different worlds. The Washington that fills the headlines, the arena of government and power, has drawn its share of perceptive fictional portrayals within the nation’s literature. The city’s African American inhabitants, however, despite making up the majority of its population, until now have remained almost invisible to American literature.
That lack is now being remedied, due to the work of a hitherto little-known but gifted writer. Edward P. Jones published an earlier book of fourteen short stories, Lost in the City, in 1992. Like All Aunt Hagar’s Children, its stories are mostly set in “the District” as the region’s inhabitants say. The connections between its stories and those in the present volume, although sometimes subtle, go beyond setting. In 2002, his novel of a black slaveholder in the antebellum South, The Known World, appeared. It won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. Now, in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones returns to twentieth century Washington with another fourteen stories, marked by the careful craftsmanship and the convolution of fate and consequences in the city’s residents’ lives.
This is a community whereat least in Jones’s storiesfamily members disappear for years at alarming rates, where bizarre deaths are commemorated by becoming nicknames for a place or person, where cause and effect are twisted into nonsequential patterns. It is also a place where personal sacrifices are made, in the best American tradition, for an elderly woman’s peace of mind or the chance to make a child’s life better than the lives of her elders. Most of the community’s members are migrants from the rural South, or if not migrants themselves, the second- or third>generation descendants of those who were migrants. These stories span the twentieth century. Some of the early migrants were not many years removed from slavery. Even many years later, the city’s reputation as the first way station on the way north, drew southern migrants. In both cases, their connection to places, memories, and the lore of the South stayed with the new Washingtonians. No less than the members of Congress with whom they share the city, these African Americans remain inhabitants of their home districts also.
In “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” Washington, D.C., is a long way from Ruth Patterson’s birthplace in Arlington, Virginia. Indeed, to a young couple with no transportation except their feet or a rented wagon, it was a formidable distance. Ruth moves there as a newlywed with her husband Aubrey in 1901. He likes the city; his aunt has made a job and room for them in the hotel-boardinghouse “for coloreds” which she runs on 3d Street NW. To Ruth, Washington is a strange, cold place, where drunken women stumble and fall in the street and wolves prowl after dark. One night Ruth cannot sleep, so, armed with a knife and pistol, she goes out onto the porch. She notices a bundle hanging on the apple tree in the front yard. Curiosity leads her to poke it with the knife, fortunately not very hard, for inside the bundle is a baby. What could be more natural than to care for it? While Aubrey prowls the streets, inquiring who might have lost a baby, Ruth simply marvels at the craziness of a city where babies grow on trees. Forever after, Aubrey regards the baby’s coming into their life as responsible for the loss of Ruth’s affection, touchingly unaware that even having their own childwhich the couple never doescan change the balance of a marriage.
The title story tells of a Korean War veteran who is prevailed upon to investigate a murder. “You the only thing close to the law we got,” his mother pleads, convinced that her son’s experience rounding up drunk soldiers as a member of the military police qualifies him as a detective. She tells him that Miss Agatha, the murdered man’s mother, cannot find any peace until she knows what happened to him, and the D.C. police do not bother to follow up on what they view as the routine murder of a black man. The veteran reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, putting his own plans for a move to Alaska on hold while he pokes around the victim’s neighborhood and...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)