Ernest Gaines’s novel spans a century, ending in the 1960s. Gaines deliberately chose this period because it begins with the Civil War era and brings the reader into the heyday of the US Civil Rights Movement. Although a handful of people live more than 100 years, as the fictional Miss Jane did, the character’s long lifespan is intended to symbolize the lives of several different generations of African Americans. Gaines wanted to remind his readers that slavery was not far beyond the memory of most living people, such as his own grandparents.
The Civil War is one historical period, rather than just an event, that Gaines presents in the novel. This is followed by Reconstruction and the backlash leading to new restrictions on black Americans’ rights. The opening of the West to both black and white settlers is another historical reality. Many of them, like Jane, ended up returning to the South. The experiences she endured in segregated Louisiana, where her partner Ned was murdered, likewise characterized the lives of many Southern blacks. The need to accept many of the Jim Crow laws because of the violent reprisals, as well as the growing attention to possibilities for changing the system, is also drawn from American life in the early-to-mid-twentieth century.