Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Douglass' Women by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Jewell Parker Rhodes was one of my mentors as a graduate student, and I try to keep up with all of the books of my former teachers, but she writes so diligently that I fell behind and only just read this novel about the black wife and white mistress of renowned abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass. It is now my favorite of Jewell's books (though Voodoo Dreams is a lot of fun).

The novel alternates between the first person story of Anna Douglass (Douglass' wife) and Ottilie Assing (a German woman who worked for the abolitionist movement). The alternating voices structure works well here (I often don't like it in other novels) because Douglass shuttles between the women, treating both of them rather selfishly, and so each can tell the part of the story that the other can't. But the two voices combined show clearly how Douglass failed to love either one of them and how united the two women are in their unrequited devotion to him. It's really quite sad.

What particularly interested me though is how unknown this history is. In her author's note, Jewell shows an awareness that she is showing the flaws of a much-admired (and deservedly so) hero of American history, but the novel does not make Douglass less of a hero, it simply makes him more of a human. I really admired it. It seems to me a perfect book club book, and I'm not sure why it hasn't met with more success. It's accessible, it's romantic, it's historical, and it's well-written.

No comments: