The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Each story’s style reflects the main character’s era, station in life, and habits of mind. Nash Williams’s letters, for example, incorporate nineteenth century cadences and attitudes. Even Nash’s complaints are couched in polite but regretful language, with phrases that speak of his regard for Christianity and civilization. His frantic requests for seeds, nails, cloth, and other items are phrased respectfully. His struggle to maintain his belief and his mission seems little short of heroic. Nash fails in the end, and his shaky achievements are lost to history, but his efforts represent a triumph of the spirit.

Martha Randolph’s story is told as an internal monologue during her last few hours of life, with an omniscient narrator filling in the gaps. She is cold and miserable, unable even to move without help. This naturally colors her memory and makes her life seem full of pain and sorrow. It was, but to see Martha only in these terms misses her unique experience. The “proud girl” of the captain’s log survives in her bravery at the auction and her later escape. Her honesty with Chester leads to ten happy years together. Martha’s laundry and restaurant ventures show that she is a woman making the best of the limited options available to her. Her will to see her daughter again is a victory of sorts.

Joyce’s story is told in short notes that resemble pages from a spilled diary, reassembled with no regard for dates. This format emphasizes Joyce’s distance from society’s assumptions. While Joyce guards her words when speaking with others, the vignettes reveal a woman who thinks for herself. She doubts most of the war-centered propaganda that bombards the British public, and she finds Winston Churchill a pompous bore. Travis’s entry into her life is her first experience of being genuinely loved and cherished. Only a few glimpses of him are given, but by his actions he shows himself to be a man of honor. In giving up Greer, Joyce joins the long line of mothers separated from their children by the legacy of racism. She is left to find her way in provincial British society however she can.