Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Cry of Absence by Madison Jones


A Cry of Absence was published in 1972 but is set in the south in 1957, the start of the civil rights movement. Its central character, Hester Glenn, is an old school southerner, the descendent of slave owners, still living in her great-grandfather’s house. She is a Presbyterian, rigidly conservative, proud of her heritage, comfortable in her old-fashioned town and devoted to her two sons, especially Cam, the talented baseball pitcher. Hester, herself, might have expected her life to proceed with quiet dignity, but suddenly it is disrupted by the violent murder of a black boy, Otis Stevens. Cam’s brother, Ames, comes to suspect that Cam is implicated in the murder and tells his mother of his concerns. Hester dismisses them, telling Ames she knows her sons well enough to know such a thing would be impossible. Doubts remain, however, and the novel proceeds with a horrible inevitability.

Although this is a novel about race, to some extent it is incidental. A Cry of Absence is more a psychological study of a family riven apart by its deadly secrets. Racism and entrenched reactionary attitudes play a major role in the narrative, but it is the unfolding fate of the three central characters which is truly engrossing. In his contemporary review, Monroe Spears called it ‘an authentic, pure, and deeply moving tragedy’, while Allen Tate called it a ‘masterpiece of fictional art’. While it is, indeed, a fine novel, it is, to be honest, somewhat dated and the characters are close to stock, especially Cam and the Snopesian Hollis Handley, a piece of white trash who tries to take advantage of Hester at the height of her tragedy. Nonetheless, it is a gripping read, beautifully written and superbly controlled.

The novel explores the classic southern dilemma of a conservative hankering for a past which never truly was and which contains unpalatable truths. Hester believes absolutely in the old ways and has brought her children up to think likewise. In the case of Cam, however, her preaching of the old values reveals the dangers inherent in them: it is confirmed that he is, indeed, a racist murderer. Faced with the dissolution of all that she thought immutable, Hester disintegrates, and the family tragedy escalates. A Cry of Absence is quietly powerful. It offers no easy answers. It contains no saintly characters to provide glib reassurance. It simply reveals a tragedy and follows it to its conclusion.

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