The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks is a post-American Civil War story in divided Tennessee, where citizens and their families become wrapped up in a political war.
I am always skeptical of black narratives told by someone who is not of the African American ethnicity. When I learned of Robert Hicks’ new story told from the perspective of a freed slave, I delved directly in to see if he could pull it off. What I expected was a narrative badly written in the African American vernacular that so many writers attempt with failure. Instead, The Orphan Mother intriguingly captures a tragedy that displays the distrust between races in a divided Southern town from two pain-filled voices.
In The Orphan Mother, former slave Mariah Reddick undertakes an investigation to find out who killed her son Theopolis, a burgeoning African American politician in their small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Mariah’s new friend George Tole, a free man from New York and neighbor to Theopolis, wrestles with his past as he tries to combat the evils of the present.
According to Hicks during a discussion at the Louisiana Book Festival, he was able to find a connection to his characters by writing with empathy. He said that while he has never experienced a mother’s pain when she loses a child, his “connection is being human.”
Some writers know exactly how to make an emotional appeal to keep a reader hooked, but annoyance tugging on anger is never expected upon entrance into any story. This is what immediately sets The Orphan Mother apart from most others—and why it has been given amazing reviews thus far.
This was the world, the life, she had chosen. Perhaps once she could have had fine clothes and diamonds and a trip to Paris or London, but she had remained true to a world that had chosen her.” – The Orphan Mother
While this story is told from two very different points of view—a freed slave and midwife from the Deep South and a born-free soldier from New York—a common idea seems to connect the protagonists within the first two chapters: a black person in America after the Civil War should accept their lot in life. Hicks’ story begins with the narrative of Mariah accepting she will be remembered as “a penniless Negress,” and of Tole who did not want to be known as a killer, but accepted that it was the only thing he was good at. While this is striking and daunting, it is not the essence of the message in The Orphan Mother.
Instead, Hicks shows how one woman, in a quest for justice, can gain the support of so many in a divided Tennessee town on the brink of a revolution. What connects the two characters is not what they accept of their lives, but the tragic fate of death, parenthood afterwards and the ability to lead progressive and influential lives in spite of such loss. Hicks said that he “wanted to write about these people that somehow through the worst of times lived powerful lives.”
Linking the story to his New York Times bestseller The Widow of the South is Mariah—the slave of Carrie McGavock, the owner of a gravesite that holds the bodies of dozens of men slain during the Civil War. Carrie is a veteran to child loss and helps Mariah after Theopolis’s killing.
Tole, while he dreadfully offends Mariah, attempts to atone for his mistakes by seeking vengeance for her, as his love and respect steadily blossoms. All the while, he is stuck in self-misery from the death of his son, which he believes he caused.
In a politically torn city trying to rebuild after the Civil War, Franklin frighteningly resembles modern day America, where personal lives of citizens are continually affected by the ambitions and agendas of politicians and businessmen.
The Orphan Mother is one of our fall/winter reads. View the full 2016 Fall/Winter Reading List here.