The title of All Aunt Hagar’s Children gives you an idea of one of the strengths of this short-story collection: Edward P. Jones has woven a tapestry portrait of a community. Or, to switch metaphors, he has laid a table where everyone in the family can come, get their due, and have their say.
The stories aren’t linked by anything other than their setting: black D.C., mostly black Catholic D.C., from the late 19th century to the latter half of the 20th. These people are farmers and porters whose children will be doctors and nurses. Both the poorer and the richer ends of the family are treated with equal respect, even reverence.
There are certain recurring situations: men’s mistreatment of women, and how women respond to that or choose not to respond; the slow drifting-apart of marriages (and remarriages, and re-re-remarriages); the inbreaking of the supernatural or possibly-supernatural. This last element is basically superstitious rather than religious. Catholicism is an identity, an institution, more a feature of the outer landscape than the inner landscape of the heart. These characters are concerned with future-telling dreams, root work, and a kind of reincarnation.
The tone of voice is lyrical and somewhat distant: These are stories held in memory for a while before they were let slip into the world. At times it felt heavy and lugubrious to me. The humor mostly comes in asides, in the little cameos of neighborhood people like Freddy with his secretly-processed hair. At other times the humid-summer-evening style worked for me, cast its spell, and I was caught up in Jones’s powerful images: the “miracle” of a flooded creek which spared only one member of a family; a woman knocked down her front steps as a group of children watch and try to understand; a woman striding into a candy store to tell everyone that their nostalgic old-fashioned candies don’t taste anything like the Sugar Babies and Mary Janes that she remembers.
There’s a strong sense of D.C. the vanished world, the fabled Chocolate City which had a fall even though it barely had a rise. But Jones is not a nostalgist, as the candy-shop scene suggests. In most of his stories Southerners come up to D.C. because they’ve heard rumors: You can live like a king in Washington! In Washington, women like you are queens! I do not think it will be spoilerous to say that this does not happen. These are stories about the hard awakening from a sojourn in the Dream City.