Rosellen Brown is an analyst of conflict. In her third novel, Civil Wars, the setting for the conflicts she explores—regional, racial, sexual—is the family, where her characters work out the intricate connections between their personal and political selves. The novel’s main characters are a couple, Jessie and Teddy Carll, who met and married during the civil rights movement. Their backgrounds could not be more different. Jessie is a Jewish New Yorker whose father is a committed Communist; Teddy is an aristocratic “Confederate child” whose movement activities are viewed by his Mississippi family as a betrayal of his segregationist background. The Carlls, married fifteen years, live in Jackson, where Jessie teaches third grade in an alternative school and Teddy works for a textbook company. Jessie has become involved in several interracial women’s groups and projects—a rape-crisis center, a shelter for battered women—and Teddy has kept up his movement contacts. The Carlls’s effort to live an examined and politically correct life has its vexatious moments; at one point, a friend remarks in affectionate disgust, “That’s the trouble with the two of you, you look at the whole world like it’s all a page or two out of Henry James.” The friend’s irritation aside, Brown draws the characters of Jessie and Teddy so that the reader respects their seriousness and recognizes in their conflicts the intimate stresses of contemporary family life, set firmly in its public and historical context.
For most of Brown’s novel, which is narrated in the third person, Jessie functions as the center of consciousness. As the “mascot of her father’s Party cell,” Jessie has perfected the habit of analyzing connections and inconsistencies between ideology and life’s practical claims. Her self-ironic ruminations are thorough but inconclusive. At one point, she explicitly compares herself to Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “Every breath of Dorothea Brooke is duly noted, every stirring of hot feeling, tepid regard, heart-stopping cold—she could hear the grass growing, that was her problem, Jessie would imagine the infinitesimal rasping sound of the green shaft lengthening and Dorothea, rapt on the lawn, attending” Pensive Jessie thinks of herself as a “lapsed ideologue,” one who does not trust abstractions and who tries to concentrate on “love in the singular”—that is, love for those she actually knows, in contrast to her husband’s passionate commitment to people he has never seen.
In the novel’s opening section, the Carlls, the only remaining white family in what was once an integrated neighborhood, are being harassed—with late night phone calls, punctured bicycle tires, sugar in the gas tank—to sell their house. Jessie thinks the family, which includes eleven-year-old Lydia and fifteen-year-old Andy, should move, but Teddy disagrees: They moved there on principle, and on principle they should stay. The conflict between Jessie and Teddy over leaving the neighborhood becomes the outward and visible sign of the deeper uneasiness in their marriage. Jessie believes that Teddy has not grown beyond the idealism which served him and the movement so effectively during the early years of their relationship. Thinking of her husband as “a generic Early Movement Hero,” she compares him to “the first mutant long-necked giraffes who didn’t starve because they could eat from the tops of trees, who miraculously had the qualities they needed for one time, one place.” Jessie admires Teddy’s devotion to the cause of racial equality, a devotion which, as Brown’s imagery reveals, borders on the religious. Still, Jessie realizes that Teddy’s skills at political speaking and organizing, perfect for the 1960’s, are, by the end of the 1970’s, practically useless. Wasting his energy and intelligence in a monotonous job, Teddy lives in the more exciting past, when his speeches were quoted in Newsweek and his honeymoon was spent in jail. Jessie is critical of her husband’s inability to change; she also loves him and wants to keep their family intact. In the course of the novel, Jessie must grow in wisdom and self-knowledge in order to deal with the problems in her marriage.
Brown establishes the quiet tension between Jessie and Teddy in the first fifty pages. At that point begins the shocking sequence of events which will magnify the Carlls’s differences: Teddy’s sister and her husband are killed in an automobile accident, and Teddy and Jessie learn that they have been named guardians of Teddy’s niece and nephew, Helen and O’Neill Tyson. These events are all the more startling because Teddy’s sister had disowned her brother for his movement activities, her husband had been involved in both the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, and their children have been attending a private segregationist academy in Birmingham. In spite of the fact that the Tysons’ values are at the antipodes from those of the Carlls, the orphans move in,...
(The entire section is 2059 words.)