UNMENTIONABLES is a story concerning the interaction of slavery, family, love and war. Two Southern families, the Hollands and the Askews, and the slaves they own, but do not fully control, find themselves forced to confront traumatic change in the face of the Civil War. Dorothy, the independent, Republican-minded only child of the Holland family, wants to protect her wry, cynical maid (and best friend), Ella, by marrying a man she can persuade into sharing her abolitionist sympathies. Her chosen target, with whom she finds herself falling, conveniently or inconveniently, in love, is William Askew, who is himself torn between his duties as a Confederate soldier, his love for Dorothy, and his affection for his half-brother and valet, Cato. Cato, in turn, finds his mind awakened by a Quaker artist, Erastus Hicks, who teaches him to read, and his heart brought to life by an unexpected love affair with Ella’s brother, Jimmy – but is also torn by his loyalty not only to his brother William but also to his bitter, crotchety, lonely father, Augustus Askew, who has never even acknowledged him as his son. Jimmy, who loves his family, Cato, and his dog Venus with all his heart, is bitterly angry at the white world for the injustice and cruelty done to those he cares for, but finds his assumptions challenged by the humanity of some of the white people around him, as well as by his deep and passionate love for the half-white Cato.
This is a moving and profound novel, exploring the ways in which love counters cruelty in even the harshest of conditions. The characters are beautifully drawn, their feelings and motivations believable and real, their loves alternately heartbreaking and redemptive. Even the minor characters are drawn with the kind of careful detail that makes them spring brilliantly to life. The author deftly leads the reader through his characters’ minds, allowing us to understand their actions on a deep and sympathetic level, making it difficult to hate them outright even when they behave hatefully. Events move at a steady pace, neither rushed nor dragged out, and the plot unfolds gently before the reader, giving us a view of a better future through the dim haze of a damaging and poisonous past. The author’s descriptive powers are substantial, particularly where emotions are concerned, and the most passionate scenes, whether erotic, angry, despairing, or joyful, are all charged with a vivid intensity.
Some aspects of the plot strike me as a bit on the optimistic side of believability, but they generally manage to stay within the bounds of reality. The idea of an abolitionist daughter of a slaveholding family, for example, is by no means unrealistic (there were numerous real-life examples, including the Grimke sisters and Elizabeth Van Lew), but the risks Dorothy takes without serious consequence, and the lack of serious censure she receives from everyone around her, make her storyline teeter a bit on the edge of the implausible without quite going over. The ending wraps up rather cheerfully as well, tying up loose ends a bit too neatly – though undoubtedly many characters still have some distance to go before finding complete peace, they are all left at least with their feet on the right path.
UNMENTIONABLES is a tender and warmhearted look at love and family, at the possibilities love creates for rebuilding and recognizing humanity even in the most dehumanizing of situations, and at the hope it brings that even the worst and most vicious cruelties can be brought down if we will only see the “other” as a person like ourselves, worthy of love and care.
Reviewed by Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader.