Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955
Jubilee (1966), by Margaret Walker, is a fictionalized but historically grounded account of the experiences of African Americans in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. This long novel is divided into three sections of roughly equal length.
I. Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years
The first section of Jubilee (Chapters 1 through 16) introduces a number of characters and story lines but focuses mostly on the central character, Vyry. The first few chapters jump forward in time, presenting highlights in Vyry’s young life. For example, in Chapter 1, Vyry is roughly two years old when she is brought from one of the Dutton plantations to another to be seen by Hetta, her mother, who is lying on her deathbed. In Chapter 2, she is seven years old and is taken by Mammy Sukey to the Big House to work. She waits on her half-sister, Lillian, and is tormented by Salina Dutton. In Chapter 3, Vyry is ten years old and is living with Aunt Sally after Mammy Sukey’s death.
Numerous story lines are developed in this first section of the novel: John Morris Dutton is beginning to realize his political aspirations. Brother Zeke, the preacher among the slaves, uses stealth and a forged pass to move freely from plantation to plantation. Ed Grimes, the wholly unsympathetic plantation overseer, reacts to the death of his favorite dog and two of his children by murdering an innocent old slave. Two slave women are publicly hanged for allegedly poisoning their owner and his mother. Lillian’s marriage to Kevin MacDougall is celebrated. Two Black men and two White men help slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Lucy is branded for hiding in the swamps; she subsequently escapes the plantation. The main storyline is clearly the budding relationship between Vyry and Randall Ware, a free and independent Black man who works as a blacksmith. Randall promises to free Vyry if she marries him, but John Dutton refuses to consent, as her marriage to a free Black man would end his ownership of her. In the closing chapters of the first section, Vyry is twenty years old and has given birth to two children by Randall when she learns that she is to be sold at auction; she turns to Brother Zeke for help. He proposes having a White man purchase her using Randall’s money, but the plan is uncovered and fails. Increased hostility from Whites toward free Blacks drives Randall to convince Vyry to attempt an escape at night. She is unable to leave her two young children behind and is caught. Vyry is brutally whipped for her escape attempt, leaving her with a heavily scarred back. She lies in fever for three days and is cared for by two other slave women.
II. “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”—The Civil War Years
The second section of the novel (Chapters 19 through 40) details how the Civil War affects the lives of the slave owners and the slaves on the Dutton plantation. In the opening chapter of this section, John Dutton, now fifty-seven years old, is active in state government and is a whole-hearted supporter of the slave economy of the South. His son, Johnny, is at West Point, and his daughter, Lillian, has two children by Johnny’s friend Kevin. Abraham Lincoln’s election as President and the subsequent formation of the Confederacy is mirrored on the plantation by John's carriage accident, in which he breaks a leg. His leg turns gangrenous as the nation moves toward war, and he dies (in Chapter 21) shortly before the first shots are fired. Salina runs the largely self-supporting plantation with Grimes, freeing up Johnny to finish his studies at West Point and then enter the military as an officer. Vyry receives a note from Randall warning her that war is coming and instructing her to wait for him.
Kevin does not share the Southern enthusiasm for the war of his wealthy White neighbors, but he reluctantly volunteers to serve in the army as well. Before Johnny leaves the plantation, he promises to free the slaves at the war's end if they serve faithfully and help to achieve victory. He takes the Black slave Jim along with him as a personal servant. At age twenty-two, Johnny takes a bullet in the lung and returns home only with the help of Jim, who no longer feels bound to the Dutton family for life yet remains tied to the family by a complex sense of duty. Fanny Crenshaw visits the wounded Johnny several times, finally sharing a brief kiss with him and professing her love just before he dies. Salina Dutton, Johnny’s mother, suffers greatly from his death. Kevin similarly returns home to die. One day before Kevin's two years of service are completed, a Black Union soldier (serving in the first integrated brigade) stabs him in the abdomen with a bayonet, and Kevin dies three days later. Jim runs away from the plantation after Johnny’s death and, like Randall and Brother Zeke, finds ways to contribute to the Union Army's war effort. Randall has been repairing railroads, and Brother Zeke has been spying for the North.
Life on the plantation for the surviving Duttons becomes harder as, by the end of 1863, the tide begins to turn against the Confederacy. Many slaves escape (the number increasing as news of the Emancipation Proclamation spreads), and others are requisitioned for the war effort, such as performing dangerous labor in munitions plants. Salina does not change her views on the war or on slavery; she invests much of her wealth in Confederate war bonds and, after most of the slaves have escaped and Grimes has left the plantation, she tries unsuccessfully to get Black prisoners to work her fields. The booming of the Union Army’s big guns causes Salina’s pictures to fall off the walls and her fine crystal to shatter; she suffers a massive stroke and dies the next morning, leaving Lillian to feel all alone although Vyry still cares for her in every way.
The year 1865 finds Vyry, now twenty-eight years old, still on the plantation, working to feed her own children and to care for Lillian, whose mental state begins to deteriorate. Vyry cooks all day for the Union soldiers who overrun the plantation, only to see them ransack the place before they leave. Vyry refuses to believe stories that Randall is dead and resolves to wait for him; she says twice that she is duty-bound to wait. Innis Brown, a recently freed Black man, rescues Vyry when she is attacked by a stranger, and he stays on at the plantation, repairing items and working as a field hand. Innis asks Vyry to marry and move west with him; she agrees but delays for months. Vyry feels married to Randall (she had “jumped the broom” with Randall and been married by Brother Zeke in a slave ceremony), but Randall's blacksmith shop has been abandoned for years and his whereabouts are uncertain. Vyry finally tells Innis that she will marry him at Christmas. Lucy Porter arrives to care for Lillian and insists that Vyry take her share of the plantation wealth that had been hidden from the Union Army. Vyry leaves the plantation with her new husband.
III. “Forty Years in the Wilderness”—Reconstruction and Reaction
The third and final section of the novel (Chapters 41 through 58) focuses on Vyry’s attempts to create a new life with Innis after leaving the Dutton plantation. These attempts are complicated by acts of nature, growing White hostility toward Black people, and Randall Ware's return.
In the opening chapter of this section, Vyry, her two children, and Innis are travelling in a mule-drawn wagon. They settle down in a forest near a small Alabama town. They get work using the skills they learned on the plantation and live happily for seven years. When the river rises, they realize that they have built their home on a floodplain. They move to a cabin previously occupied by the Coopers, a poor, White farming family. The Browns soon learn that the Coopers were sharecroppers who ran out on a debt. Harry, Vyry's third child, is born. The Browns have signed a contract with the landowner, Mr. Pippins, but after a year passes they realize the extent to which they are being exploited. They, too, leave without giving notice.
Their wagon breaks down near Troy, Alabama. Here, Vyry and Innis find work but also get their first glimpse of masked, white-clothed Klan members who take away a black woman suspected of “entertaining white men.” With the help of the Jacobson family, they locate some free land and build a house, barn, and outhouse. Vyry unintentionally angers her employer, Mrs. Jacobson, and Minna is harassed by three young, White men. Klan members light a cross in their yard and burn down the house. The Browns receive assistance from Reverend Whittaker and the Jacobsons, and they leave town under the escort of two Black soldiers.
Vyry and Innis arrive at Luverne, Alabama, where people have suffered a famine. Vyry loses the child she is carrying (it is delivered dead, with the cord around its neck). They live in Luverne for three months when they learn of an available farm in Greensville, which is near the Dutton plantation. On the trip to view the available land, Vyry visits the old plantation only to find Lillian—vacant-eyed and dressed in pre-war, out-of-date clothes—repeating four short sentences over and over.
June 1870 finds Vyry reluctant to build a house and settle down yet again; she is deeply worried about the continued White hostility toward Blacks. Vyry wins over the townsfolk, however, when she helps to deliver the baby of a young, White couple, and she agrees to stay on to help with other births. The Browns' new house is built with much help from their White neighbors. The longstanding conflict between Innis and Jim (with the former treating the latter much like a field hand or mule) comes to a head, and Innis beats Jim. Vyry defends her son against her husband with an iron skillet, and she talks to Jim about the need to "returns love for hate, and good for evil." Vyry drops a spoon twice, meaning that unexpected company must be coming.
Interspersed among the accounts of the Browns' various attempts to settle down are briefer updates on Randall Ware, who returns to his smithy near the abandoned plantation only to learn that Vyry has left, remarried, and probably moved to Alabama. After refusing to sell his land to Ed Grimes, Randall is targeted by the local Ku Klux Klan: his journeyman is killed and he is beaten brutally. In despair, Randall acquiesces by selling his land, leaving the state, and promising to quit politics.
These storylines converge when Randall shows up, well dressed and wearing a gold watch, at the Brown home. Randall plans to take Jim to a Baptist school for training Black teachers and ministers in Selma. Randall is confrontational at first, insisting that he is still married to Vyry and threatening to have Innis arrested for beating Jim. Randall and Innis also argue about how to improve the condition of their race. (Innis comes close to representing some of Booker T. Washington's views, whereas Randall's views seem modeled at least in part on W.E.B. Du Bois and a bit on Marcus Garvey.) For the first time, Vyry shows her scarred back to her two husbands, yet she says that she has no hate in her heart for anyone. Randall, Innis, and Vyry talk through the night and end on very good terms. Jim leaves with Randall, and the book closes with a focus on Minna.