Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Little has been written, aside from reviews, on Cooper’s fiction. She is better known, perhaps, as a playwright; some of the action in Family is theatrical, even melodramatic. Such a scene is the one in which Always reveals to Doak, Jr., his true birthright. In the soft, flickering light of her mean chicken shack turned into a home, he chokes her in an attempt to stop her from telling the truth. She is able to croak through the stranglehold a barter agreement with her son, who never forgives her. Always is not blameless; it is she who has created this monstrous, vengeful son. The author avoids dealing with the moral complexity of the situation of a loving mother allowing her son, passing as a white man, to go off and fight to preserve slavery.

Her other son, Soon, is also problematic in the context of the novel’s ostensible themes. The author certainly does not develop the character of Soon, who never knows that he is white. He is neglected by Always, his mother, and by J. California Cooper, his creator.

Cooper is an accomplished short-story writer, and her novel tends to read somewhat like a novella: dense with plot, short on character development, a “mopping-up” denouement. She tells her tale with a certain Rabelaisian gusto and depends on devices familiar to readers of eighteenth century French farce to advance the action. Certainly, Mark Twain is one of her literary antecedents.

Family is in the...

(The entire section is 417 words.)