Shirley Ann Grau's Pulitzer Prize-Winner
In the last several years, amidst racially-charged incidents, book industry experts talked about the increase in books about racism. The New York Times noted that during one period of 2020, books about racism and race dominated the bestseller lists of both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, offering titles like So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
Kwame Spearman, who is the chief executive of The Tattered Cover, a retailer bookstore in the Denver area with multiple locations, says the new proliferation of books about race and racism is “a tsunami.” Publishers are finally buying books from people of color, and people are clamoring to read them, and that’s fantastic news. But it’s important to note that books about race and racism are not a new phenomena. They’ve been around for decades. Case in point: Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House, the Pulitzer Prize-Winner in fiction for 1965.
Who was Shirley Ann Grau?
I had not heard of Shirley Ann Grau in my studies. Maybe it’s because I’m a Midwesterner, studying in Indiana and Illinois. Maybe it’s because there are so many authors to know that I was never exposed to her. Maybe it’s because I came of age in the 70s and her work was a decade ahead of me. But I’m glad I know her now. Born in Louisiana in 1929, Grau’s work focuses on the deep South. (As I was reading her, I felt echoes of Faulkner) She was unafraid to expose the deep prejudices of the South, peeling back layer upon layer of culture and history to do so. Class structure, women’s roles, and the force of money and power on those without status form the basis of her work. Her obituary in August of 2020 in The Washington Post, quoted Alison Graham-Bertolini, a professor of English and women’s studies, who described Grau’s work like this: “Her novels wade fearlessly into the complexities of racism and miscegenation across generations, and bring to life the South’s diversity — people, dialects, customs, food and architecture, along with the searing heat, pungent smells and the unbroken blue sky of Louisiana in midsummer.”
Grau’s start in the literary world
She was first known for a collection of short stories published in 1955 titled “The Black Prince and Other stories.” It became a finalist for The National Book Award and was lauded by The New York Times as
“the most impressive U.S. short story debut between hard covers since J.D. Salinger’s ‘Nine Stories.’ ”
Interestingly, in today’s world, she would not get that acclaim for that particular work. In fact, she’d be severely criticized for the book because she was a white woman writing from an African American perspective, a viewpoint she acknowledged she could only see “from the outside.”
However, times were different then, and her willingness to portray African Americans as sympathetic main characters was a unique vantage point.
The Keepers of the House
The Keepers of the House is a multi-generational saga that focuses on two main characters: First, there’s William Howland, the descendent of generations of settlers in the Alabama countryside. He works hard and builds an empire of wealth and power, resulting in his owning most of the town and rubbing noses with big-name politicians.
William Howland has a daughter named Abigail whose mother died shortly after childbirth, leaving Howland devastated and forced to raise a young girl alone. Years pass.
Abigail goes off to college, falls in love, marries a poetry professor and goes to Europe to live with him.
Howland, now an empty nester roams his land, coming across Margaret, a lonely, 18-year-old black girl living in hardscrabble circumstances. He brings Margaret back to his home as a housekeeper.
The relationship deepens, and William and Margaret soon have three children together, all who are raised on the homestead.
In the meantime, Howland’s first daughter, Abigail, returns home after her husband has left her. She comes back to her father’s house to raise her own baby daughter, also named Abigail, under the shelter of the family.
Abigail, the granddaughter
But when the daughter arrives back home, she is already ill and soon dies, leaving Howland and Margaret to raise the granddaughter with their other three mixed-race children.
Margaret understands the opportunity of the light-skinned children and sends them off to the North to get educations and “pass” as white. Margaret never lets them come back to be treated as “colored.”
Abigail goes on to marry a prominent attorney with political ambitions. He is an opportunist, telling constituents whatever they want to hear, even joining the Ku Klux Klan because he thinks that’s what will win him votes. He knows about Margaret living with William Howland, but like the rest of the community, accepts Howland’s cohabitation and resulting offspring as a white man’s right.
When prejudice meets politics
William Howland dies, leaving behind his vast fortune, and Margaret goes back to the bottomland from whence she came. Howland has gifted her with the funds to buy a house of her own. It turns out that Howland and Margaret were officially married, with a legal marriage certificate, a fact that incites hostility and anger in the town.
When Abigail’s politician husband hears that her father had not just had a black woman as a mistress but had officially married her, he is livid and leaves Abigail.
Alone at the house that the Howlands have owned for generations, Abigail faces a vicious mob of angry white men who are trying to burn her home. While they are setting fire to her barn, she retaliates by getting into the field where everyone has parked their cars and burning them.
When the townspeople snub Abigail because of her grandfather’s actions, Abigail wrecks her own kind of ultimate vengeance against their prejudice in a beautiful poetic justice years in the making.
Summarizing the story can’t do it justice
The Keepers of the House is what I would call a “slow burn.” In the beginning, it’s rich in atmosphere but not much action. Slowly, very slowly, the heat rises. By the end of the novel, it’s a full-scale conflagration of emotion and action, blazing with vengeance and hatred.
I like to read Pulitzer prize winners because I want to see what a panel of literary people perceive to be “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”
Grau’s novel is most definitely a distinguished work showcasing life in the deep South, filled with interesting and flawed characters. She unabashedly confronts the ugly attitudes and actions of prejudiced individuals in Alabam s pre-Civil Rights.
After Grau won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1965, she was harassed with phone calls by men who threatened her for her depiction of interracial marriage. She was also a victim of a Klu Klux Klan cross burning on her lawn, but Grau depicts that as a pathetic, almost humorous incident. Apparently, the Klan members forgot a shovel and couldn’t get the cross to stand up, so they burned it and let it lie in the grass. Grau wasn’t even home at the time.
There are so many books to read that teach us to be better, that illuminate our history, that showcase the struggles of humanity, and that act as spotlights on raw emotion. Those works should not be lost over the years. The Keepers of the House is one novel that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Perfect Literary Pairing
Read this book in conjunction with The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet, a book about very light-skinned twins. One girl makes the decision to “pass” as white and cuts off all communication with her family. The novel emphasizes how the color of your skin affects your circumstances and your very identity.