Jubilee tells a story of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction period from the point of view of the black people who were often both victims and pawns in a struggle that convulsed an entire nation. Just as Gone with the Wind (1936) is the story not just of a period but of a woman, the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara, so the narrative power of Jubilee derives from its protagonist, the slave Vyry, modeled after Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, the author’s great-grandmother. The book was inspired by the stories told to Margaret Walker at bedtime during her childhood by her grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, who is Vyry’s daughter Minna in the novel. Thus, as Walker points out in her book How I Wrote “Jubilee” (1972), the novel has a solid basis in oral tradition, which was later amplified with the extensive study of slave narratives. In her attempt to ensure the accuracy of her work, Walker invested a solid ten years in research, checking not only the historical background but also minute details of everyday life.
Walker’s novel is divided into three sections, each of which represents a distinct historical period as well as a separate segment of Vyry’s life. The first, “Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years,” is the account of Vyry’s childhood as a slave. It begins when Vyry is two years old and her mother, Sis Hetta, is dying in childbirth. Although she is only twenty-nine years old, Sis Hetta has given birth to fifteen children, many of them the offspring of her white master, John Dutton. Although he does not acknowledge Vyry or his other slave children, his wife Salina Dutton, or “Big Missy,” is painfully aware of their existence. Because Vyry looks so much like her own daughter, Lillian Dutton, Salina vents her anger toward her husband by mistreating Vyry on every possible occasion. Vyry cannot expect any help from her father. When she asks permission to marry Randall Ware, Dutton refuses his permission, thus making it clear that, despite his facile promises, he has no intention of ever setting Vyry free, either during his life or after his death. The section ends with Vyry’s...
(The entire section is 881 words.)